Pakistani policemen stand guard during the Easter Sunday service at the Sacred Heart Cathedral Church in Lahore on April 16. (Photo by Arif Ali/AFP)
An official from Pakistan's most populous Punjab province has admitted that authorities have failed to protect religious minorities from hard-line Islamists.
"The intolerance, anger on religious matters and culture of lynching disturbs us," said Malik Muhammad Ahmad Khan chief spokesman of the Punjab government speaking at the May 12 event titled "Securing Punjab's Diversity" in Lahore, the capital of Punjab province where majority of Christians in the country reside. Punjab also has 60 percent of the country's population.
As an example, Kahn said four people from the Ahmadiyya sect were killed by hardliners during April. "The religious cleansing must stop," said Khan who is also special assistant to the Punjab chief minister.
Ahmadis, who believe Prophet Mohammed was not the last prophet, have suffered harsh persecution since they were declared non-Muslims by Pakistan in 1974.
"We have failed in protecting minorities from forced conversion," Khan said at the event attended by more than 30 activists, journalists and educationists. "Everybody knows it, why should we hide it?" he asked.
Out of 1,000 Christian and Hindu women forcibly converted to Islam and forcibly married each year in Pakistan, 700 of them are Punjabi Christians, according to the National Commission of Justice and Peace and the Pakistan Hindu Council. Rights group say many of these are under the age of 18 and are married off to Muslims, or forced into bonded labor.
Speaking to ucanews.com after the event, Father Abid Habib — former regional coordinator of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Catholic religious major superiors — said, "It has become impossible for local Hindus to recover their kidnapped children. In all the cases the minority community is at the losing end."
"The police and the courts always take the side of the Muslim party. Even though one can see that the girl is making a statement under pressure, the courts usually dismiss the case and let her go with the kidnappers," said Father Habib. "Perhaps they think of it as lawful in service of Islam."
As a panelist at the event, Nadeem Umar Tarar, from the National College of Arts in Lahore, highlighted other issues that minorities face in Pakistan such as the country's controversial blasphemy laws and the bombing of Sufi shrines.
"Our cultural identities have been suppressed by a religious and extremist mindset. There is no space for intellectual discussion," said Tarar.
Speaking at the event, Catholic Professor Anjum James Paul said that non-Muslim families in Pakistan continue living in silence for fear of persecution and face religious discrimination in schools and government offices.
Paul, who is the Chairman of Pakistan Minorities Teachers' Association, said school textbooks for increasing hatred for religions other than Islam. "We are facing internal threats due to the prevalent extremist mindset which is affecting everybody including students and religious groups," he said.
Christians make up most of the non-Muslim minority in central Punjab and account for 1.5 per cent of the province's total population. Punjab government records say about 7,000 Hindus live in the province. About 70 percent of Pakistan's 600,000 Ahmadis also live in the province.
Nationally, more than 95 percent of Pakistan's 180 million people are Muslims. Less than 2 percent are Christians, Hindus and other religious minorities.