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Religious freedom is a pipe dream for Pakistan’s minorities

US report paints grim picture for minority groups amid rise of religious extremism and attacks
Pakistan Christian women march on the streets to demand end of discrimination and persecution against the community in this undated image.

Pakistan Christian women stage a protest rally to demand an end to discrimination and persecution of the community in this undated image. (Photo: AFP)

Published: June 06, 2024 03:43 AM GMT
Updated: June 06, 2024 04:29 AM GMT

Umar Saleem is still traumatized by the abuses and torture he endured in police custody after he and his brother were accused of defaming Islam, which sparked a Muslim mob attack on Christians in eastern Pakistan last year.

“I tried to commit suicide during the interrogations,” Saleem, 28, a member of Full Gospel Assembly Church, told UCA News on June 3.

Saleem and his family have been living in a shelter house in Punjab province since the religiously charged riot in Jaranwala left at least 80 Christian houses and several churches looted, vandalized and burned to the ground on Aug. 16.

Jaranwala is a Christian-majority neighborhood of mostly sanitary workers, masons, and daily wage earners. The attack displaced hundreds of Christian families like Saleem’s, who fled their homes to escape violence at the hands of the rioting mob.

Saleem, a sanitary worker and a father of one, was arrested after the names, photos and phone numbers of his father, Saleem Masih, 65, and younger brother, Umair Saleem, 26, were found on the torn pages of a Quran.

His brother was also arrested with him on Aug. 17.

Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy law makes defamation of Islam and Prophet Mohammad a severe offense to be punished by life and death sentences.

Saleem was accused of violating the law and threatened with dire consequences if he did not admit to committing the crime.

For five consecutive days, he was forced to stand without any sleep in a detention center in Faisalabad, about 39 kilometers from Jaranwala.

He alleged that he almost lost all energy to stand upright as police beat him up with a water pipe at least 50 times.

Police also used abusive words and stripped him naked in his cell, he further alleged.

“They threatened to pull my nails. The next day, they hung me from a pole and continued beating me as I screamed,” he said.

He fasted for a day and prayed that the real culprit who had triggered the riot would be captured.

Following the fast, he paid 500 rupees (US$1.80) to a police officer to get some fruit. The officer didn’t show mercy but instead “slapped me and took the money,” he recalled.

That evening, he broke his fast by drinking water. A frustrated Saleem collected a chicken bone, sharpened it, and tried to cut his throat. But the police arrived in time and stopped him.

“I thought they were going to kill me anyway,” he said.

The police ensured he received treatment and medicine and kept a sharp eye on him until a Christian group secured bail for him and his brother after two weeks.

Saleem said his family has suffered from insecurity and loss of livelihood ever since the riots.

They have not been able to return to their home in Jaranwala even after normalcy returned to the area.  Other Christian families have returned.

On the same day Saleem spoke about his ordeal, an elderly Christian man died in a hospital a week after brutal assaults by Muslims who accused him of burning pages of Quran.

The mob violence in Sargodha district of Punjab on May 25 triggered widespread protests from Christians across Pakistan.

For decades, Pakistan’s blasphemy law has been weaponized by Muslim hardliners to target members of minority groups, including Islamic sects like Shia and Ahmadi, as well as Christians and Hindus, say rights watchdogs.

They say the law is abused in most cases to settle personal scores or to resolve disputes over money, property, or business.

Last year, 66 new blasphemy cases were registered across Pakistan, according to data from the police. Most cases were reported in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous and politically dominant province.

However, the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP), the human rights arm of the Catholic bishops’ conference, reported that 201 persons were accused of committing blasphemy in 2023. Among the accused 161 were Muslims, 15 were Christians, and one was Hindu. The religious identity of the 25 others is unknown.

The NCJP list of cases includes that of Saleem and his brother.

The latest annual report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) cited Pakistan’s blasphemy law as one of the main reasons behind the lack of religious freedom for minorities in the Muslim-majority country.

The report said Pakistan failed to make notable progress in ensuring freedom of religion or belief last year.

“Religious minorities were targeted for their beliefs, including accusations of blasphemy, and were subject to mob violence, lynchings, and forced conversions. Attacks on and desecration of places of worship also occurred frequently throughout the year,” it stated.

“Blasphemy cases and associated mob violence remained a substantial threat to religious freedom. Political parties leveraged blasphemy laws for political gain in the run-up to national elections.”

The US report slammed Pakistan for engaging in “systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.”

It also called for imposing “targeted sanctions on Pakistani government agencies and officials responsible for severe violations of religious freedom by freezing those individuals’ assets and/or barring their entry into the United States.”

About 96.3 percent of Pakistan’s more than 241 million people are Muslims. Hindus and Christians make up 1.6 percent each, and the rest, less than one percent, are from other faiths, including Sikhs and Buddhists, the USCIRF noted.

Pakistan's foreign ministry rejected the USCIRF report, claiming it was “faulty” and based on “unsubstantiated allegations.”

Other faith groups reported constant persecution at the hands of hardliners.

Shia Muslims, who make up 15 percent of the population, have been subjected to attacks from Sunnis for years.

Last year, clashes between Shia and Sunni Muslims left 15 dead in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, police say.

Shia leader Kazam Raza Naqvi said the government's no objection certificate (NOC) is mandatory for Shia Muslims before the annual Muharram procession, which commemorates the martyrdom of Husayn Ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammad.

“There is no legal basis for the demand. The administration panics, and there is a war-like situation every year during the holy month of Muharram due to sectarian violence,” he told UCA News.

Minority Hindus, primarily young girls and women, are victims of forced conversion.

In 2023, at least 136 cases of forced conversion to Islam were reported, and the majority of victims were Hindu women from Sindh province, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said in its annual report.

Just like blasphemy, forced conversion terrorizes minorities, said Hindu activist Jaipal Chhabria.

“The only victims are minor girls, abducted and then married to Muslims. The state has the power but lacks the will to end our grievances,” he told UCA News.

About half a million Ahmadiyya, whom Pakistan officially declared non-Muslims in 1974, are among the most persecuted groups.

From 1984 to 2023, a total of 280 Ahmadiyya members were killed, and 166 worship places were attacked, destroyed, and closed, according to the community’s welfare group, Rabwah.

The group reported 43 attacks on worship places, the desecration of over 100 graves, and the arrest of 21 Ahmadiyya on religiously linked charges last year.

“Religious extremism is a reality, which breeds serious challenges. This hatred could result in damage beyond repair unless authorities take appropriate action,” Ahmadiyya community leader Amir Mahmood told UCA News.

In his shelter home, Saleem considers himself lucky to have escaped a similar fate as Nazir Masih. But this came at a heavy price.

The family handed over their four-story house on 63.23 square meters of land to their relatives before they abandoned Jaranwala.

“It’s a miracle we are still alive, and survived without being attacked by a mob,” he said.

“The blasphemy law has ruined my life. We don’t know what the future holds for us.” 

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