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What Pakistan's minorities expect from Imran Khan

Recent pledge to grant citizenship to Bengali and Afghan refugees has been well received but doubts remain
What Pakistan's minorities expect from Imran Khan

A Pakistani man sits near a poster of Pakistan's cricketer-turned politician and head of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice) party Imran Khan, in Islamabad in this July 30, 2018 file photo. (Photo by Aamir Qureshi/AFP)

Published: September 19, 2018 04:52 AM GMT
Updated: September 19, 2018 05:26 AM GMT

A network of Pakistani immigrants in the United States asked me to draft an online appeal requesting that the new government of Prime Minister Imran Khan appoint Christians to top positions.

Their sense of optimism rose with the announcement that Atif Mian, a Princeton University professor and a member of the minority Ahmadi faith, was being made a senior economic adviser.

For Ahmadis, not accepted by many fellow Muslims in Pakistan because of their belief in a prophet after Mohammad, it was particularly welcome given past prejudice and persecution.

Liberal human rights advocates, more widely critical of Khan's soft stance on hard-line Muslims such as the Taliban, rejoiced when the Information Minister, Fawad Chaudhary, defended Mian.

Chaudhary, when initially seeking to justify Mian's appointment, stated that Pakistan belongs to minorities as much as the majority.

It was the first time a federal minister had publicly defended the Ahmadi community.


The disappointment

But the hype of harmony was short lived. The Ahmadi professor was fired a few days later amid a backlash from right-wing political parties and Islamist groups.

Because of the controversy, two others resigned from the government's top economic advisory body.

This constituted a loss for Pakistan.

The Catholic Church congratulated the new government on its appointment in a Sept. 6 media statement.

Archbishop Joseph Arshad of Islamabad/Rawalpindi, who is president of Pakistan's Catholic Bishops' Conference, urged the government to give roles to people from minority communities.

Father Francis Nadeem, executive secretary of National Commission for Inter-religious Dialogue and Ecumenism, criticized the government's early performance on minority issues.

"In his inaugural speech, Khan did not focus much on minorities who have to struggle even for low-paid jobs in the public sector," Nadeem told me.

He said it was the first time that no member of a minority group been appointed to the federal cabinet. The same thing happened in relation to one provincial cabinet.

Many non-Muslims and members of minority Muslim sects had believed in Khan's election promise to build a 'Naya', or new, Pakistan.

Failure to put this undertaking into practice has already resulted in disappointment.


The demands

In 2014 the Supreme Court of Pakistan mandated that a quota of five percent of government jobs be given to members of minorities as well as directing the formation of a special task force for the protection of places of worship.

Several Christian NGOs have called on the new government, led by Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) political party, to fulfil the quota and the requirement for the task force.

A related issue centers on the future of another quota system in the education sector. In March, the Punjab province higher education department formed a committee of academicians and ministers to fix a five percent quota for minority students in public sector universities and colleges.

Sikh and Christian activists in Karachi and Lahore archdioceses have since formed a delegation to press for implementation of this provision.

"Despite holding countless meetings with stubborn government officials, there is no breakthrough," a Catholic member of the delegation told me.

Meanwhile, minorities in Khyber Pakhunkhwa province are also awaiting full implementation of a 12-point interfaith harmony policy, approved 10 months ago, involving job quotas for religious minorities.

There were also complaints over preferential funding treatment for Darul Aloom Haqqania, which is seen as a Jihadi university.

Another long-standing demand of the church is for the revival of a Ministry of National Harmony.

In 2013, such a ministry was merged into the broader Religious Affairs Ministry.

Christian leaders viewed this as the loss of a much-needed avenue to advance minority interests.

And the government has failed to release statistics on minorities from the national census conducted last year.

The lack of a proper statistical foundation is one of the main reasons that reserved seats for minorities in national and provincial assemblies have not been increased for decades.

In 2008, the composition of the national parliament increased from 210 to 342 seats, but the number of seats for minorities remained at 10.

Owing largely to his career as a cricket player, Khan is the seventh most followed world leader on Twitter. (Pope Francis has the third spot with 17.7 million followers.)


Citizenship for Bengalis, Afghans?

The world listens when Khan speaks, so positive developments for minorities would help to rehabilitate the country's international image. In an unprecedented step, Khan announced this week that his government will grant citizenship to Afghan and Bengali refugees born in Pakistan.

The announcement has been welcomed by marginalized groups and rights defenders but many are skeptical of Khan's commitment given his history of backtracking from earlier promises such as Mian's outrageous withdrawal.

Khan's nationalist allies are already threatening to pull out of government, and fears are now that his administration is likely to shelve the plan to recognize Bengalis and Afghans as equal citizens.

If this occurs faith in the cricket legend will erode. There are also other human rights issues and incidents that he must address. 

Shortly after Khan took his oath of office in August as Pakistan's 22nd prime minister, an Ahamdi jeweller was murdered and a mob attacked an Ahmadi place of worship. Five Ahmadis were injured by gunfire during this attack. As usual, the culprits were not arrested.

The group International Christian Concern has documented many recent cases of persecution and violence against Christians around the country. These include the killing of four Christians and the forced conversion of three others.

Thirty-nine Christians imprisoned over the 2015 Youhanabad case, in which two men mistaken for militants were lynched following church bombings, are still languishing behind bars.

If such abuses continue in the 'New Pakistan', we would better off in the old one.

Kamran Chaudhry is a Catholic commentator based in Lahore.

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