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Billboard campaign fights discrimination in Punjab

Media campaign titled 'Bringing Communities Together' will continue until Pakistan’s Independence Day on Aug. 14

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Billboard campaign fights discrimination in Punjab

A billboard featuring Archbishop Sebastian Shaw (bottom left) on Jail Road in Lahore. (Photo: Kamran Chaudhry)

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As the coronavirus rages in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, new trends of interfaith harmony have emerged in its Punjab province.

These include a bold billboard campaign against hate and discrimination. High-profile billboards along busy roads in five cities including Lahore, the Punjab capital, feature religious leaders with the headline, "Our message to the nation: coronavirus has no religion or sect!"

Archbishop Sebastian Shaw of Lahore is among the leaders being advertised.

“Let us unite against this worldwide epidemic. Instead of blaming each other, follow guidelines of the government and World Health Organization to save yourself and other people,” says the prelate in a public service message.

Similar messages are being broadcast on TV, radio, cable television networks and social media as 253,604 Covid-19 cases were reported to World Health Organization (WHO) with 5,320 deaths as of July 14.

Youth Development Foundation (YDF), a Catholic-led group for students, is collaborating with the Ministry of Human Rights, Minority Affairs and Interfaith Harmony Government of Punjab for the campaign launched last month.

The pilgrims

In April, WHO reported that 46 percent of Pakistanis who have tested positive for the Covid-19 have a travel history to Iran. Pakistan and Iran share a 900-kilometer border, which is frequently used for trade and by pilgrims belonging to the Hazara community who travel to Iran for religious pilgrimages, often crossing the border town of Taftan in southwestern Balochistan province.

The ethnic group, which is predominantly Shia Muslim, has been targeted for more than a decade, with many shootings and bomb attacks claimed by armed sectarian groups such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.

Balochistan National Party-Mengal chief minister Sardar Akhtar Mengal claimed that around 95 percent cases of Covid-19 in the country are due to mismanagement at Taftan border. “Pakistani pilgrims were allowed to cross the border into their homeland from Iran without testing for coronavirus,” he told media. Several clerics were reported using the term “Shia virus.” 

Television channels and social media slammed the provincial government for its poor handling of the people quarantined at the Taftan camp.

Video clips shared on social media show people crammed inside tents erected in a dirty courtyard and sleeping on floors and in corridors.

The Balochistan chief minister dismissed criticism over the alleged lack of facilities at the Taftan quarantine facility.

In March, authorities placed Raiwind city under quarantine after more than 200 Tablighi Jamaat preachers were tested positive in Punjab province alone.

More than 100,000 people, including 5,000 foreigners, attended the three-day annual gathering of the Tablighi Jamaat – an Islamic missionary movement – despite calls by the government for the event to be canceled before lockdown was implemented. Thousands of Jamaat members were later quarantined in different provinces and held responsible for spreading the contagion in Pakistan.

According to Shahid Rehmat, executive director of YDF, 20 billboards and 2,000 poll banners have been posted under the media campaign titled “Bringing Communities Together” that will continue till Aug. 14, the country’s Independence Day.

“The continual blame game can fuel hate speech and further disharmony in society. Anybody can transmit the virus. We hope to replicate the campaign in other parts of the country. Banners of Catholic bishops in restaurants and along roads is a rare show in our society,” he told UCA News.

“Students of diverse faith from different educational institutes are now being urged to share short video messages. The clips are being shared on campaign page of Punjab government.”

Hate crimes

Meanwhile, human rights groups continued protesting against persecution of religious minorities.

In May, Islamic missionary group Dawat-e-Islami reported conversion of non-Muslims while distributing rations at the Faizan-e-Madina head office amid the coronavirus lockdown in Karachi.

Charity group Saylani Welfari has already faced accusations that Christian and Hindu families are being excluded from its door-to-door food distributions.

More than 100 Christian families from Punjab’s Kasur district were reportedly excluded from food aid distributed by a village committee comprising Muslims. In another incident, Christians were denied food in a village near Lahore.

Earlier this month, the Ahmadi community accused local administration and villagers of Chak (village) 79 in Sheikupura district of desecrating Ahmadi graves. Ahmadiyya spokesperson Saleemuddin tweeted the photos of damaged tombstones.

“How long the state apparatus will act as enabler in the hands of extremists? How long our dead will be persecuted in their graves? How long the state & others will turn a blind eye to this?” he tweeted on July 1.

In the federal capital Islamabad, a temple under construction has been attacked and vandalized four times since the news of its construction was made public last month.

Khurram Shahzad, deputy secretary to the chief minister of Punjab, said he welcomed the anti-hate campaign of YDF.

“This has been a difficult time for humanity as discrimination, hate and stigmatization accompany the spread of Covid-19 worldwide and particularly in Pakistan. I greatly appreciate the campaign that is effective in influencing the common public,” he stated in a July 10 letter.

“Messaging of leading political and religious leaders is an important work which is needed to keep its impact sustainable over time.”  

Earlier this year, YDF and the provincial ministry launched the "Harmonious, Tolerant and Safe Punjab" campaign amid increasing religious persecution in the province.

The project involves the formulation of an Inter-Faith Harmony Policy on promoting diversity and harmony in Punjab, where Christians are the largest non-Muslim minority making up 2.6 percent of the province's population of 110 million.

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