Pakistan’s religious minorities continue to suffer

By Sunil Kukreja

The statesman, writer and second president of the United States John Adams is noted to have said, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

Pakistan’s foreign minister would indeed be well served to come to terms with what John Adams said. Recent, albeit modest, international attention focused on the persecution of religious minorities in Pakistan was apparently noteworthy enough to compel the foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, to comment on the issue publicly during a recent visit to Brussels.

Quite predictably, the foreign minister summarily dismissed claims that the persecution of Christians was in any way systematic or reflective of a wider trend. Indeed, according to him, at best any such reports of persecution were nothing more than “individual incidents.”

The persecution of religious minorities in Pakistan was brought to the fore due to the international profile given to the case of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who was convicted of blasphemy in 2010 and who languished on death row for eight years before her conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court.

Blasphemy laws in Pakistan have been the source of unwelcome attention for the government, as these laws have been seen as widely exploited and invoked against people of various religious minorities to settle scores in what almost invariably amounts to personal disputes. Asia Bibi’s saga was apparently one such example.

Not long following her release from prison, Asia Bibi left Pakistan to resettle in Canada. As tragic and traumatic as her case was, she remains fortunate for having survived her ordeal. Many of those persecuted for religious reasons have not been so fortunate.

Qureshi is either curiously ill-informed or he conveniently chooses to ignore the fact that over the last 30 years, some 1,500 individuals – Christians, Hindus and people from Muslim religious minorities – have been charged under blasphemy laws.

Yet it is not just blasphemy laws that are repressive for Pakistan’s religious minorities. As leading journalist and former member of the National Assembly Farahnaz Ispahani has noted, “cleansing Pakistan of minorities” has been evident – and ongoing – since the partition from India and the creation of Pakistan. This process of targeting especially the Hindus (who still make up the largest religious minority in Pakistan), Christians, and other minority Muslims such as the Ahmadis, has directly correlated with the increased influence of hard-line Islam and the “Talibanization” of the country; something if not fully abated, then tacitly tolerated by each successive government.

It is worth quoting Farahnaz Ispahani at length:

“At the time of partition in 1947, almost 23% of Pakistan’s population was [composed] of non-Muslim citizens. Today, the proportion of non-Muslims has declined to approximately 3%. The distinctions among Muslim denominations have also become far more accentuated over the years. Muslim groups such as the Shias who account for approximately 20-25% of Pakistan’s Muslim population, Ahmadis who have been declared non-Muslim by the writ of the state, and non-Muslim minorities such as Christians, Hindus and Sikhs have been the targets of suicide bomb attacks on their neighborhoods, had community members converted to Islam against their will, and had their houses of worship attacked and bombed even while they were inhabited by worshipers.”

So while Foreign Minister Qureshi claims that Pakistan values its religious minorities, the evidence unambiguously indicates otherwise, as it is highly unlikely that the percentage of Hindus and Christians in the country would have declined so dramatically and precipitously since 1947 had minorities like Asia Bibi and countless others not been targeted and intimidated, and thousands more violently attacked and forcibly converted. This indeed – and contrary to the foreign minister’s claim – is a scathing commentary about the state of religious diversity and acceptance of religious minorities in Pakistan.

While the international community often fails to hear of even high profile attacks and bombings of churches and other places of worship for minorities, for decades, there has been another systematically insidious and brutal process of religious cleansing underway in Pakistan. The abduction, rape and forced conversion of Hindu girls – often barely in their teens – in Sindh province has been a brutal and terrifying reality of daily life for Hindus in Pakistan.

The occasional feature report in western media, such as a 2017 write-up in The Atlantic, occasionally acknowledges the religious-based violence that has long been perpetrated on Hindus in Sindh. As the Hindu population in Pakistan has dwindled to barely 1.5% of the population, Sindh has been the bellwether of the plight of Hindus in Pakistan, as that is where one finds the country’s most visible, albeit marginal, presence of Hindus. Some estimates claim that each month, about 20-25 young Hindu girls are kidnapped and forcibly “converted” to Islam in Sindh.

But not even the above statistic can capture the magnitude of the terror and devastation inflicted upon on the daily lives of Hindus in Sindh. Most recently, the Global Human Rights Defense has also brought attention to the ongoing violence of forced conversion in Pakistan in its 2019 report. If this was not enough documentation, Qureshi might be advised to be more attentive to the steady flow of news reports within Pakistan and Sindh itself on the extent of violence inflicted upon Hindus in Sindh.

One recent protest – organized by the Pakistan Hindu Council – against abductions and forced conversions of Hindu girls, held in Karachi on July 5, should once again impress on the Pakistani political establishment the extent to which this orchestrated targeting and persecution of religious minorities warrants immediate attention. But the fact remains that apart from the stream of platitudes about valuing and respecting religious minorities, the political establishment in Islamabad has all but chosen to turn a blind eye to the ongoing atrocities in Sindh. Indeed, many in the Hindu communities in Sindh would go further and accuse the Pakistani authorities of being complicit by allowing such religious persecution to persist.

Despite its best efforts, the Pakistan Hindu Council and a small number of sympathetic Pakistani parliamentarians remain relatively isolated and abandoned by the international community in their struggle. It is indeed deeply troubling that international organizations such as the United Nations’ special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief has appeared indifferent about taking up the systematic plight of Hindus in Sindh.

If the trend since Partition is any indication, the future of religious minorities in Pakistan is not difficult to predict. The repeated denials, distortions, and obfuscations by politicians like Shah Mahmood Qureshi and his ilk notwithstanding, the continued persecution of Hindus and other religious minorities in Pakistan is all but certain.

Collected by  – Anup Chakraborty