Religious intolerance in Pakistan widespread: US

By Khalid Hasan

WASHINGTON: While Pakistan was credited with having taken ‘some steps’ to improve the treatment of religious minorities, the International Religious Freedom Report, released at the weekend, described the general situation on this front in pretty negative terms.

The report, covering 2007, said, “The government took some steps to improve its treatment of religious minorities during the period covered by this report, but serious problems remained. Law enforcement personnel abused religious minorities in custody. Security forces and other government agencies did not adequately prevent or address societal abuse against minorities. Discriminatory legislation and the government’s failure to take action against societal forces hostile to those who practice a different religious belief fostered religious intolerance, acts of violence, and intimidation against religious minorities.”

It said, “Specific laws that discriminate against religious minorities include anti-Ahmadi and blasphemy laws. The Ahmadiyya community continued to face governmental and societal discrimination and legal bars to the practice of its religious beliefs. Members of other Islamic sects also claimed governmental discrimination.”

The report said relations between religious communities remained tense and social discrimination against minorities was widespread, accompanied by violence. Terrorist and extremist groups and individuals continued to target religious congregations. The report pointed out that freedom of speech in Pakistan was subject to ‘reasonable’ restrictions in the interests of the ‘glory of Islam’. The consequences for contravening the country’s blasphemy laws are death.

There is life imprisonment for defiling, damaging, or desecrating the Holy Quran and 10 years in jail for insulting another’s religious feelings. “These laws are often used to settle personal scores as well as to intimidate vulnerable Muslims, sectarian opponents, and religious minorities,” said the annual review of religious freedom around the world.

The report took note of the December 2006 Women’s Protection Bill for which it credited former president Gen (r) Pervez Musharraf, which amended the Hudood Ordinance and moved cases of rape and adultery to secular rather than Shariah courts. Musharraf also ordered the release of all women imprisoned under the Hudood Ordinance, resulting in the release of 2,500 women.

According to the annual review, most senior levels continued to call for interfaith dialogue and sectarian harmony as part of its programme to promote enlightened moderation and during the year held three interfaith conferences, one each in Lahore, Peshawar, and Karachi.

Promotions: Promotions for all minority groups appear limited within the civil service, particularly acute for Ahmadis, who contend that a ‘glass ceiling’ prevents them from being promoted to senior positions. The report also points out that there have been forced conversions to Islam, especially in Sindh where 15-20 Hindu families were forced to convert.

Sectarian violence is widespread. The report notes that as part of its overall public education reform programme, valued at $100 million, the US government provided substantial financial support to the government’s curriculum reform initiative, which included eliminating the teaching of religious intolerance.

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