Pakistan’s Kalash complain that their youth are forcibly converted to Islam

The community of 3,000 is polytheistic, speaks an Indo-European language, and traces its origins to Alexander the Great’s army. With fair skin and light eyes, its members face an uphill battle to pass on their culture as many move to the city for work. In 2008, they applied to be added to the UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List, but so far the government has been slow due to red tape.

Islamabad (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The Kalash, Pakistan’s smallest ethnoreligious group, are afraid that their distinct identity might disappear as their youth convert to Islam.

Concentrated mostly in the Chitral valleys, the community of 3,000 applied to the UNESCO to be added to its Intangible Cultural Heritage List in 2008, but remains mired in sluggish bureaucracy eight years on.

For this reason, the Kalash Peoples Development Network (KPDN) issued a dire warning that the ethnic group is facing extinction.

The polytheistic Kalash have very distinctive features. With their fair skin and light eyes, academics have speculated that they might be descended from soldiers of Alexander the Great's army, which conquered the area in the fourth century BC.

They speak the Kalasha language, from the Dardic family of the Indo-Iranian branch, and celebrate their gods through music, dance, and alcohol, which they brew themselves.

Among them, the sexes mingle easily, marriage can be sealed with a dance, and women are free to change partners, a far cry from the rest of the country, where a strict Islamic code forbids such behaviour.

However, as the Kalash move away from their agrarian lifestyle and into trades, studying or working in the cities, their traditions have come under threat.

At school, their children are forced to take a compulsory class on Islam but not about their own traditions, which are becoming more and more difficult to follow.

Some face anger from Muslim neighbours, who believe that Allah is enraged by the tribe's un-Islamic practises and has unleashed natural disasters – floods and earthquakes – on the area as punishment. Under such pressure, more and more end up converting to Islam.

"The Kalash are a living civilisation and need to be protected legally through the government of Pakistan," said KPDN activist Luke Rehmat.

He accuses government officials of not taking the UNESCO bid seriously, adding that for the past eight years, "there is no positive work on this" file.

Consultations between UNESCO, the government and the Kalash were held in 2012 -- but there has been no official communication since then, said Jawad Aziz, a cultural officer at UNESCO in Islamabad.

"The government of Pakistan has not submitted any dossier so far either for preservation of the Kalash cultural heritage or to safeguard any endangered part," he said.

For their part, government officials warn the process takes time. "The procedure to be included in the UNESCO list is quite a lengthy one," said Sajid Munir, a spokesman for the National Institute of Folk and Traditional Heritage, which has been working to preserve Kalash culture since the 1980s.