A Pakistani Hindu prays at a temple in Karachi. A new report disputes the view that religious minorities in the Muslim-majority nation are subject to widespread poverty and forced conversion to Islam. (Photo: Asif Hassan/AFP)
A new study is challenging historical stereotypes that religious minorities in Pakistan face widespread poverty and forced conversion to Islam.
In addition to looking at the common challenges of Pakistan’s blasphemy law and stigmatized identity, the study also examined claims made about the issues facing religious minorities. Only Christians and scheduled castes are trained to think they cannot start a business, especially one related to food, the study found.
“Parsees own Avari, one of the most successful hotel chains in the country. They also have the largest share in the liquor brewery industry. Upper-caste Hindus in Sindh province have a remarkable share in industries related to cotton production, pulses and liquor sale. They own many restaurants offering non-vegetarian food,” the report states.
“Bahais do not face the challenge of attacks on worship places because they do not have such a place. Not all minorities were hit by terrorism (not to be confused with mob violence). Christians were hit the most while Parsees, Bahais, Sikhs and Hindus remained safe.”
Ahmadis, Parsees and Bahais also denied forced conversion of their women, the study added.
“No known organization has ever provided data to verify that 1,000 non-Muslim girls are forced to convert every year. A news agency claimed that about 700 Christian and 300 Hindu women were kidnapped and converted, but its report did not mention any names or incidents in support of its claim,” the report stated.
According to Centre for Social Justice data, only 160 incidents of forced conversion took place from 2013 to 2019.
The Center for Law and Justice, a Lahore-based NGO that that works for the environment and social justice, released “The Index of Religious Diversity and Inclusion in Pakistan” on Feb. 28 at Forman Christian College in Lahore. The research was based on interviews with 100 respondents from non-Muslim communities.
Asif Aqeel, the Christian author of the report, claims his findings make the study the first of its kind.
“Religious minorities are a heterogeneous group. They are diverse in their faith, culture, history, economic status, educational level, racial profiling, level of social acceptance and geographic dispersion, etc. Most one-size-fits-all statements and recommendations on all these communities are often incorrect,” he told UCA News.
“Pakistanis Parsees are not seeking asylum abroad. Most Christians do not vote for their community members contesting elections on general seats. But the situation for upper-caste Hindus in Sindh province is different.”
In 2018, Pakistan Peoples Party's Mahesh Kumar Malani became the first non-Muslim to win a general seat in the National Assembly.
The report concludes with recommendations including legal reforms to discourage mob violence, a ban on mosque loudspeakers, an education quota for minority students, a quota for minority entrepreneurs, revision of government recruitment policies and an increase in minority seats in legislative bodies.
According to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, religious minorities account for 3.7 percent of the population of Pakistan, of which 1.5 percent are Christians, 0.22 percent are Ahmadis, 1.6 percent are Hindus and 0.07 percent are people following other faiths.
The annual Human Rights Monitor of the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Pakistan noted that 16 people were charged under the blasphemy law — nine Christians, two Muslims, four Ahmadis and a Hindu.
NCJP program coordinator Kashif Aslam called for further research on minority issues.
“More work needs to be done to correct misconceptions within minorities. Last year Catholic and Church of Pakistan bishops agreed to form a think tank to lobby for vulnerable groups. Perhaps the solution lies in joint efforts of activists as well as thinkers,” he said.
Asif Aqeel (right) and Anglican Bishop Irfan Jamil of Lahore (left) at the launch of ‘The Index of Religious Diversity and Inclusion in Pakistan’ at Forman Christian College in Lahore on Feb. 28. (Photo: Kamran Chaudhry/UCA News)
Intolerance and radicalization
Church leaders have often called for reforms to education policy and textbooks to address the issues of intolerance, radicalization and division along religious, ethnic and sectarian lines.
“The existing system perpetuates division among citizens, and the government is determined to give due regard to inclusion and diversity and eliminate derogatory and hate material from textbooks,” said Federal Minister for Education Shafqat Mahmood.
He was speaking on March 3 in a policy dialogue organized by the Centre for Social Justice in Islamabad. Independent education policy experts and government representatives agreed to develop a national curriculum suitable for the inclusion of religious minorities and social acceptance of all religions.
In January, Ejaz Alam Augustine, Punjab’s minister of human rights, minority affairs and interfaith harmony, launched the “Harmonious, Tolerant and Safe Punjab” campaign that involves the formulation of an interfaith harmony policy on promoting diversity in the province, where Christians are the largest non-Muslim minority.
On March 2, Christians from Bhagiana village in Punjab attended a memorial service for 22-year-old Saleem Masih, a Christian farm laborer who died of multiple organ failure after being tortured for washing himself in a well owned by a Muslim farmer.
Last month a mob attacked a church under construction in a village in Sahiwal district. A Christian was left mute and half-paralyzed after being shot in the head while his family tried to prevent the mob from pulling down the wall of the church. Two other Christians were injured.