08/18/2015, 00.00
PAKISTAN
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Faisalabad’s central prison denies Christian prisoners the right to a Mass

by Shafique Khokhar
Christian activists take the case to court, which dismisses the prison’s argument for cancelling Sunday Masses, i.e. security concerns. For critics, the ban on Masses violates Article 20 of Pakistan’s constitution and Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The lack of religious freedom increases violence in society.

Faisalabad (AsiaNews) – Hashmat Barkat, a Christian lawyer and director of the Peace for Nation International (PNI) non-governmental organisation, spoke to AsiaNews about the decision taken by Faisalabad’s central prison (Punjab) to end Sunday Mass for Christian prisoners.

"Restricting the right of Christian prisoners to profess freely their own religious faith is a clear violation of Article 20 of the Constitution of Pakistan,” he said.

The latter states that “(a) every citizen shall have the right to profess, practise and propagate his religion; and (b) every religious denomination and every sect thereof shall have the right to establish, maintain and manage its religious institutions.’”

He is not alone in his opposition to the prison’s decision. Indeed, some rights organisations filed a case with the Sessions Court of Faisalabad, demanding that prisons respect the principle of freedom of religion guaranteed by the country’s fundamental charter.

This prison’s decision comes as conditions in penitentiaries become more repressive after the end of a moratorium on the death penalty following a Taliban attack on a military school in Peshawar in December 2014.

The Faisalabad prison superintendent justified the decision citing security concerns and drug smuggling among prisoners. The Sessions judge however rejected his argument.

In view of the situation, prison authorities said they would allow the church service if it is officially authorised by the Inspector General (I.G.) of Prisons or the Home Secretary.

The judge thus directed the parties to approach the two offices for a decision in the matter. As of today, the case is still pending.

For Suneel Malik, an activist and director of the Peace and Human Development (PHD) Foundation, "Pakistan has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of the United Nations.* Therefore, it is under the obligation to protect the religious freedom of its citizens since Article 18 of the Covenant provides that' Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.’”

Malik added that Pakistan is also a party to the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) since 2013, which guarantees tax exemptions in trade if the country respects its conventions and recommendations. These include the obligation to respect freedom of worship without restrictions or discrimination.

"The PHD Foundation sent a series of letters to Punjab authorities but we have not received any answer. This situation is distressing,” he said.

Fr Khalid Rashid Asi shares that view. "Religious freedom is frequently violated and discrimination based on faith prevents individuals from fully enjoying their human rights,” he explained.

“When the government denies freedom of worship, the most obvious consequence is more complaints from the groups that suffer limitations. The lack of religious freedom can also result in social, economic and residential conditions that contribute to higher levels of violence."

"The government has to foster a climate of tolerance and respect for minorities and ensure the protection of minority rights through the law. The government must allow Christian prisoners to celebrate their Mass," he said.

Lastly, "This example of freedom denied to Christian prisoners increases the sense of fear, deprivation, pessimism, and insecurity among minorities, particularly Christians,” said Hashmat Barkat. Hence, “I will fight for the rights of Christian prisoners in Faisalabad’s central prison until justice is done."

* The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) is a multilateral treaty adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 16 December 1966, and in force from 23 March 1976.

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