Pakistan activists welcome new human rights task force

Government minister says it will protect religious minorities but critics are unconvinced
Pakistan activists welcome new human rights task force

Minister for Human Rights and Minority Affairs Khalil Tahir Sandhu at the Lahore press conference announcing the establishment of the new human rights task force. (Photo by Kamran Chaudhry)

Rights groups in Pakistan have welcomed the establishment of the nation's first human rights task force but remain to be convinced that it will change anything for persecuted minorities.  

"The task force shall include members of civil society, journalists, priests, pastors as well as Islamic scholars," said Minister for Human Rights and Minority Affairs Khalil Tahir Sandhu at a Sept. 7 press conference. "They shall review the progress of provincial departments on a quarterly basis and recommend capacity building initiatives and seek data to assess the human rights situation in Punjab."

Church groups have been pushing for a police force to protect churches and Christian settlements since 2014 when the Supreme Court ordered the federal government to form a task force to ensure religious harmony. The group would be responsible for protecting places of worship, acting against religious hate on social media, and the formation of a national council to ensure the security of minorities, according to the 32-page order.

Human Rights Commission of Pakistan General Secretary I.A. Rehman appreciated the move but said similar committees had failed in the past. "The problem comes in its implementation," he said.

Cecil Shane Chaudhry, executive director of the Pakistani Catholic bishop's Justice and Peace Commission also welcomed the "good initiative."

"However our demands for a police force trained to counter mob violence remains. Our police cannot handle religiously charged protesters in their present mindset and must be strategically trained," he said. "The selection criteria for the task force is very important and we recommend the government carefully select the members. Church leadership must be taken into confidence and due consultation is needed."

Christians have been victims of mob attacks since 1997 when Muslims attacked Shanti Nagar, a village in Punjab, destroying 785 houses and four churches when they heard a Christian had desecrated the Quran.

Some 10 Catholics were killed in Gojra when a mob vandalized and looted 113 Christian houses and damaged churches in 2009. In 2013, a mob rampaged through Joseph Colony in Lahore, following allegations that a Christian had insulted the Prophet Mohammed, two churches and 178 houses were torched.

Earlier this month, four suicide bombers raided a Christian colony in Peshawar, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

"The government is simply trying to show that it is doing something for religious minorities who are generally considered second grade citizens," said President of the Christian Democratic Party Ben Hur Yousaf.

More than 95 percent of Pakistan's 180 million people are Muslims. Less than 2 percent are Christians, Hindus and other religious minorities.

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