03/06/2017, 18.38
PAKISTAN
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Pakistan Christian leaders call for a new province in tribal areas

by Kamran Chaudhry

Federal authorities decided to join seven tribal areas to the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. British-era rules are still enforced in the area. The government plans to invest a billion dollars. For Lutheran bishop, “locals have been neglected” and “it will be long time before they truly understand the notion of nation”.

Lahore (AsiaNews) – Pakistan’s Christian leaders have criticised the central government for joining the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) to Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

“It would be difficult to control the tribal areas,” Lutheran Bishop Jimmy Mathew of Mardan told AsiaNews. “They deserve a separate set up. Locals have been neglected since the country’s independence from the British in 1947 and it will be long time before they truly understand the notion of nation”.

On 2 March, the federal cabinet announced plans to merge the predominantly Pashtun FATA to their neighbouring province. The tribal areas on the northern border with Afghanistan are considered a safe haven for jihadist groups like Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and al-Qaeda.

The seven semi-autonomous areas are subject to the Frontier Crimes Regulation. Introduced during the British Raj, it denies residents the right to go to court for criminal acts committed locally.

Collective punishment decided by tribal elders is enforced. There are no schools. Development groups cannot operate in the areas. Residents don’t have access to medical care. And whilst residents vote for the lower house of parliament, the latter’s laws do not apply to them.

The government’s decision starts a five-year process of unification with Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. District elections could be held later this year. The central government plans to invest 110 billion rupees (about US$ billion) in the region.

In recent years several military operations against the strongholds of extremist groups have caused mass displacement. An estimated three million people are internally displaced, forced from their homes into camps or cities.

“Basically it is a human rights free zone,” said Zar Ali Khan Afridi, chairman of the Tribal NGOs Consortium. “In absence of any legislation, locals cannot appeal for their freedom once arrested. Many languish in jail for decades. Jirgas (traditional village councils) cannot replace courts.”

“The government announcement has brought a sigh of relief. People have been demanding justice and freedom for decades. Still it’s a long process”, said the activist based in the Khyber agency.

Conversely, for Fr William Nasir, director of the Commission of Social Communications for the Islamabad-Rawalpindi Diocese, the merging of tribal frontiers is not a good decision. 

“These areas look like a set from Jesus movies,” he said. “We feel so helpless; there is so much to do. Church workers and Caritas staff are urged to visit these areas only in local clothes and preferably wearing a beard. Without any factories, they trade weapons and grow opium.” 

For the clergyman, “The government will gain more territory, but more provinces mean more development.” It “can result in development work for neglected locals”.

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