Islamabad (AsiaNews) Religious minorities are discriminated in Pakistan and a wind of religious intolerance is sweeping across the land as Muslim religious leaders purse the goal of 'islamisation'. These are some of the conclusions reached in the Annual Report on Religious freedom released by the US government.
Many Pakistani human rights groups and activists agree. They denounce discriminatory religious laws and an atmosphere of religious intolerance against non-Muslims that pervades the country. Although President Pervez Musharraf has condemned sectarian violence, measures taken against it have proved a failure.
Recent Pakistani history has been marked by local clashes over religion. Since Sharia law was introduced in 1991, violence and attacks by Islamic fundamentalists against minorities have grown exponentially.
In 1997, the Christian village of Shanti Nagar in southern Punjab was attacked by a mob of 30,000 Islamic extremists: 1,500 homes were looted and 80 per cent of the village was torched. Fourteen churches in nearby Khanewal were also destroyed.
Discrimination takes many forms, some seemingly minor. In some areas, restaurant owners ask their patrons' for their religion before serving them. One restaurant in Hafizabad (Gujranwala district) has separate utensils and wash-basins for Muslims and non-Muslims.
It was not always like that. On the eve of independence on August 11, 1947, Pakistan's founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah, said in a speech to the Constituent Assembly that everyone, "no matter to what community he belongs, no matter what relations he had with you in the past, no matter his colour, caste or creed, is first, second and last a citizen of this state with equal rights, privileges and obligations."
"You are free," Jinnah said, "free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of state."
The Republic of Pakistan with its inclusive constitution was thus born, a republic whose principles were soon put aside by the country's political and religious leaders.
In 1964, General Ayub Khan amended the Constitution to add the prefix "Islamic" to the name.
Thereafter, the country was known as the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and its constitution included many references to the Qu'ran and the Sunnah.
By 1973, Islam had become the state religion and some Islamic provisions now applied to non-Muslim as well.
The net result of this trend has been that Christians and Ahmadis (a religious movement within Islam that mainstream Muslims consider heretical) are now marginalised from the country's political, social and cultural life.
Under the current Constitution, both the President and the Prime Minister must be Muslims and all senior officials must swear allegiance to the country's 'Islamic ideology'.
Muslim religious leaders pursue the agenda of Islamisation making use of the Hudood Ordinances that the late General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq introduced in 1979 in cooperation with Muslim fundamentalists and in accordance to precepts of the Qu'ran and the Sunnah. Such ordinancesthe Blasphemy Law for instance are discriminatory and disproportionately target non-Muslims.
With the introduction of Sharia Law in 1991, Muslims who convert to other religions risk the death penalty as apostates.
Until October 2002, Pakistan was the only country in the world where voters were not allowed to vote for candidates outside their religious affiliations. The separate electoral system (SES) promoted religious apartheid and eroded Pakistan's democracy.
Civil marriages do not exist; marriages are performed and registered according to one's religion. Upon conversion to Islam, the marriages of Christian men remain legal; however, upon conversion to Islam, the marriages of Christian women, or of other non-Muslims that were performed under the rites of the previous religion, are considered dissolved. Children born to Christian women who convert to Islam after marriage are considered illegitimate if their husbands do not also convert or if they do not separate from their husbands. Children of non-Muslim men who convert are not considered illegitimate.
The Ministry of Religious Affairs, which is supposed to protect religious freedom, operates according to the quranic principle that "Islam is the only religion acceptable to God."
The Ministry claims that it spends 30 percent of its annual budget to assist indigent minorities, to repair minority places of worship, to set up minority-run small development schemes, and to celebrate minority festivals. However, using official budget figures for expenditures in 1998, the National Commission for Justice and Peace of the Bishops' Conference of Pakistan calculated that per month the government actually spent PR 160 (or US$ 3.20) per religious minority citizen compared to PR 850 (or US) per Muslim. That is just under 19 per cent.