Minority rights recognised only on paper in Pakistan
A Christian man was mortally wounded for bathing in a tube-well pool used by Muslims. Although the country’s constitution protects religious freedom, minorities continue to be discriminated in terms of equality, education, and political representation. Theocracy has deep roots in the laws of the land.
Lahore (AsiaNews) - “I saw my son bleed, bruised, unconscious. I shouted his name, splashed water on his face and gently slapped him to wake him up, but he no longer moved,” said Ghafoor Masih, a Christian, father of Saleem Masih, who was beaten to death in Baguyana village on 25 February.
The 24-year-old was punished for bathing in a tube-well pool used by Muslims. His father spoke about the incident that led to his son’s death in an interview with the British Pakistani Christian Association, a non-profit organisation.
Pakistan broke away from India for the sake of religious freedom, but it is now the home of many Ghafoor Masihs, who seek justice for their loved ones; all religious minorities are discriminated against in the country, not only Christians.
Why are minorities in Pakistan the victims of repression? Was the country founded only for Muslims? Of course not. Its founder, Quaid-e-Azam (Great Leader) Muhammad Ali Jinnah paid great attention to religious freedom.
“You are free;” Jinnah said, “you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place 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 the State".
For not following Jinnah's words, Pakistan has become the 7th most dangerous place in the world for religious minorities, according to Human Rights Watch.
The problem goes way back. Discrimination began in 1949, right after the Constituent Assembly approved the Objectives Resolution whereby all laws must conform with Islamic precepts.
Pakistan’s first foreign minister, Zafarullah Khan, an Ahmadi, paid the price and was removed at the request of religious scholars.
Ever since the resolution was adopted, minorities have lived in fear as discrimination spread across the land, making life worse for them.
According to government statistics, Pakistan’s minorities dropped from over 20 per cent in 1951 to 3.74 per cent today, as noted in the latest census.
Minorities in Pakistan have had to suffer a lot, from rape to forced marriages, verbal abuse to mental torture, physical injuries to brutal killings.
Pakistan’s constitution gives ample space to freedom for minorities. The country is also bound by numerous international treaties that protect their rights. However, there is a huge difference between what is written and what is practised.
The state’s constitutional and international obligations
Under Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Pakistan must guarantee every minority the right to freely profess and practise their religion and use their language.
Similarly, Article 22 (1) of the Pakistani Constitution bans schools from forcing students to receive instructions or take part in any ceremony other than those of their faith.
Despite what is in the law, various school boards impose the teaching of Qurʼānic and Islamic verses. Non-Muslim students are asked not only to read them, but also to memorise them.
Ethics has been introduced into the national curriculum as an alternative subject to Islam for non-Muslim students. However, many schools still do not teach this course for lack of trained staff.
Article 25 (1) of the Constitution guarantees full equality for all citizens. At the same time, article 18 of the ICCPR recognises the freedom to have and adopt the religion or faith of one's choice.
However, according to the Movement for Solidarity and Peace, about a thousand girls and young women, aged 12 to 28, of non-Muslim (mainly Hindu) origin, are converted by force every year and compelled to marry Muslim men. The authorities usually take no serious action against such criminal acts.
Article 20 of the Constitution gives every faith community the right to establish, maintain and manage its religious institution.
Research by the Centre for Social Justice and the National Justice and Peace Commission found more than 50 cases of criminal attacks against minority places of worship in the past two decades.
During the same period, almost 40 armed actions by extremist groups were reported.
Article 36 of the Constitution protects the legitimate rights and interests of minorities, including their representation in federal and provincial institutions.
The problem is that the authorities – at various levels of government – have failed to ensure the protection of minority interests.
The country’s National Assembly reserves them 10 seats out of 342. In Punjab’s provincial parliament, 8 seats are reserved out of 371; 9 out of 168 in Sindh; 3 out of 124 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa; and 3 out of 51 in Baluchistan. Is this a fair share?
Many other rights are formally recognised by the laws, but not in everyday reality. The framers of the constitution had established that the state would not be ruled under theocratic principles.
Unfortunately, discrimination against minorities shows that theocracy has deep roots in Pakistani laws.
The issue must be dealt with seriously, very seriously. Otherwise hundreds of thousands of Saleem Masihs will die every day, and offenders will never pay for their crimes.