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Pakistani activists question restrictive laws

Blasphemy laws, election system, main focus of National Minority Day

ucanews.com reporter, Islamabad

ucanews.com reporter, Islamabad

Published: August 11, 2015 09:41 AM GMT

Updated: August 11, 2015 12:09 AM GMT

Pakistani activists question restrictive laws

Activists and minority leaders in Pakistan are calling for changes to the country’s discriminatory blasphemy laws and its election system, as the country marks “National Minority Day.”

Naveed Chaudhry, head of Pakistan Minority Alliance, an umbrella group of various minority organizations, said National Minority Day on Aug. 11 should be a time to remind Pakistanis of the inclusive vision of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, founder of the nation.

Jinnah envisioned freedom and equality for all Pakistanis, regardless of gender, ethnicity or religion. Instead, Chaudhry said, the Pakistan of today remains an unequal society.

"Contrary to Jinnah's vision, there had been no representation of minorities at all for the first 26 years of Pakistan's creation,” he told ucanews.com. “Unfortunately, even today those representing us in parliament have been selected, not elected.”

According to Pakistan's constitution, only a Muslim can become president or prime minister. Chaudhry said this stands in stark contrast with Jinnah's vision for Pakistan.

"Mere pro-minority statements or daylong celebrations won't end the suffering of minorities in Pakistan,” he said. “Substantial reforms need to be brought.”

Chaudhry called for an increase in the number of parliamentary seats reserved for non-Muslims. He said the quotas originally stipulated 10 seats for minorities when the National Assembly held 217 total. Now there are 342 total seats, but the number of seats reserved for minorities has stayed the same.

In a press statement, Sardar Mushtaq Gill, a human rights activist who heads LEAD, a non-profit law firm that helps persecuted Christians, said marking a day for minority communities is commendable, but overshadowed by persecution and systemic discrimination.

“The government should do more to discourage elements who promote mob violence, discriminatory behaviour and intolerance against Christians and other minorities in Pakistan,” he said.

In a statement to mark the day, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said his government had an “unflinching resolve” to protect minority rights.

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"I am well aware of the sacrifices rendered by [minorities] in our journey towards development and prosperity," he said.

Highlighting his government’s attitude toward minority communities, the prime minister cited government job quotas for minorities and reserved seats in the National Assembly and the Senate.

According to Chaudhry, a National Minority Day in Pakistan was originally proposed by Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic politician who was gunned down in 2011 for publicly opposing the misuse of blasphemy laws. Blasphemy against Prophet Muhammad carries a mandatory death sentence, while blasphemy against the Qur'an is punishable with life imprisonment.

More than 95 percent of Pakistan's 180 million people are Muslims. Less than 2 percent are Christians.

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