State Increasingly Involved In Worsening Freedom Of Religion In Pakistan: HRCP Report

Report finds that the state at varying levels has either failed to act or has devised legislation or is working directly with perpetrators to persecute religious minorities

State Increasingly Involved In Worsening Freedom Of Religion In Pakistan: HRCP Report

Freedom of religion and beliefs in Pakistan suffered between July 2022 and June 2023, with growing participation from the state, whether in the form of new legislations or lack of implementation of older laws or court directives and, even direct state action or inaction along with emboldened activities of those involved in activities infringing on freedom of religion of citizens such as violent attacks and forced conversions.

This was suggested in a report titled 'A Culture Of Hate-Mongering' published by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan on Wednesday. The report has been authored by researcher and journalist Rabia Mehmood.

The report covers a period from July 2022 to June 2023, covering incidents which took place in the country with regard to freedom of religion in the months following the brutal lynching of Sri Lankan factory supervisor Priyantha Kumara by a mob in Sialkot over alleged blasphemy charges.

The report noted that "the state machinery has learnt little" from the Sialkot incident as it saw a series of lynchings and attempts at vigilante violence and targeted killings in the name of religion since.

"The state has institutionalised the practice of arresting persons accused of religion-related offences on the grounds of 'maintaining peace' and avoiding incitement to violence."

Moreover, the report noted that the use of the 'religion' card or giving into religious sentiments by mainstream political parties has increased during the review period.

One example cited was how the Punjab government, led by then Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) member Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi (who has since switched to join the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf), had approved an amendment to the law which inserted a clause on the finality of prophethood into the official marriage contract (nikkahnama) which carries both legal and religious implications. 

"The policy reflected the decades-long exclusion of the Ahmadiyya community," it said. 

Moreover, the report said that political parties used religion as a weapon against opponents after a leader of the then-ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) accused the former prime minister and founder of the opposing PTI of "misusing religious references."

A journalist was booked for blasphemy and defamation when he discussed Imran Khan's comments with religious references. An attack on Imran Khan during a public rally later in the year was attributed to his comments regarding religion and was deemed an act of religious extremism.

Religious parties, especially in parliament, exercised their power to table laws, which broadened the scope of blasphemy laws. In particular, were amendments included in the Criminal Laws (Amendment) Bill by Jamaat-e-Islami's Mushtaq Ahmed Chitrali, which carried sectarian clauses, specifically anti-Shia, and sought to add ten years of punishment for those insulting the companions of the Prophet (PBUH). 

Blasphemy cases and incidents also saw an increase. 

In July 2022, a bizarre incident in the litany of violent incidents over blasphemy was reported when the two wi-fi networks operating at the outlet of a mobile telephone company in central Karachi enraged sentiments and caused an angry mob to shut down the adjoining markets and stage a protest. The manager and staff at the store were taken into custody by police.

In Septemeber 2022, a Christian man was arrested for sharing an allegedly controversial message via the messaging application WhatsApp.

In October of the same year, a woman with stated mental health issues was booked for allegedly desecrating Islamic scriptures.

Incidents targeting the Ahmadiyya community also gained steam during the year with attacks on worship places and individuals.

One worrying aspect noted during the reporting period was the growing involvment of law enforcers - if not directly acting on behalf of instigators but silently facilitating by failing to protect minorities within the ambits of the law.

"An escalation in attacks on Ahmadiyya sites of worship has been documented in
past years, the bulk of which occurred in Punjab and Sindh with immense impunity, the report said, adding, "The speed and pattern of the vandalism, threats by the far-right, appeasement of extremists by law enforcers, and the authorities' proactive
approach to defacing facades of Ahmadi properties and demolishing minarets all
point towards the ready willingness of law enforcement personnel to put the
sentiments of the Muslim majority first, in the guise of maintaining law and order."

An HRCP fact-finding mission that investigated attacks on Ahmadis in Punjab in January 2023 found that the TLP had been running a targeted campaign against
the community in Gujranwala and its surroundings and that the police, along with the district administration, had given into TLP pressure instead of curbing it. This appeasement helped create a permissive environment for attacks on the Ahmadiyya community in the region.

More than 87 Ahmadiyya graves were desecrated in 2022/23, of which at least 84 were in Punjab, with the police complicit in some of the attacks.

In March 2023, the UN Special Rapporteurs on minority issues, FORB, freedom of expression and independence of judges and lawyers wrote to the Government of Pakistan to communicate their concerns over 'violent attacks' on Ahmadis, 'hate speech' and incitement to violence by anti-Ahmadi campaigners and authorities including the police and bar councils. They further emphasised that despite their requests for 'remedial actions' by the authorities, the community's safety had continued to deteriorate.

All told, the report noted that 171 cases of blasphemy were reported in 2022, with the most cases reported in Punjab with 112 (in 2023, there were 552 people — including 13 women — incarcerated in Punjab prisons on blasphemy charges), followed by Sindh with 33, 14 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, seven in Islamabad Capital Territory, two in Balochistan and three in Azad Jammu and Kashmir.

Most cases, around 88, were registered against Muslims, 75 against members of the Ahmadiyya community, four against Christians, and two against Hindus.

The report noted the worrying rise of far-right rhetoric amongst the legal community who have slowly become "agents of persecution of religious minorities". The report cited the notifications by bar associations and bar councils, which made it mandatory for lawyers to declare Ahmadis non-Muslim if they wish to practice in that province.

Dedicated groups have emerged among law enforces which actively work to initiate cases of blasphemy based on real or virtual (on social media or messaging apps) incidents, establishing a direct line of communication with relevant law enforcement officials tasked with handling such cases.

A blight on the country's human rights record, incidents of forced conversion have continued. The most vulnerable segments of society, women and girls from religious
minorities, suffer repeatedly in the absence of national legislation against
this heinous practice and effective enforcement of child marriage laws.

Minority women are also subjected to gender-based violence, but these incidents are underreported. 

A bill on forced conversions saw little progress while the implementation of existing laws continues to face lapses. The report said that Ghotki in Sindh had become the epicentre for the forced conversion of teenage Hindu girls. 

While domestically, there was scant action on the subject, in December 2022, the UK imposed sanctions on Mian Mithu, whose religious sanctuary in Sindh has become the centre of forced conversions in the province.

The report also noted how, at least on two occasions, attacks on Hindu temples in Sindh were reported, including one in Karachi and one in Kashmore.