The international community must provide sustained engagement to help Pakistan escape a self-perpetuating cycle of religious discrimination and sectarian violence, writes Knox Thames.

Recent news out of Pakistan has been grim after successive murders of religious minorities under allegations of blasphemy. By all accounts, sectarian violence is worsening in Pakistan year after year. Religious communities across the country are regularly targeted for violence or fall prey to onerous laws. In this disturbing milieu, there are several paradoxes to Pakistan's poor climate for religious freedom.

First paradox: While the country was founded to protect a religious minority, it has failed to extend those protections to its own religious minorities. Look no further than the horrific mob attack that gruesomely killed a Christian man and his pregnant wife over allegations of blasphemy, followed days later when a policeman killed a Shia with an axe while in custody over blasphemy. These concerns did not materialise overnight. Banned extremist groups and terrorist organisations have repeatedly targetted Shia gathering places, mosques and pilgrimage routes for attacks. The overall number of Christians killed has skyrocketed in the past year due to a suicide bomber killing 119 and injuring 145 at All Saints Church in Peshawar in September 2013. Ahmadi Muslims continued to be singled out for targeted shootings. The May 2014 killing of Dr. Mehdi Ali, a Canadian-American Ahmadi conducting humanitarian work, shocked the conscience. The mob attack on an Ahmadi home further served as a graphic reminder of their vulnerability. The attack on a Hindu temple in Larnaka and forced conversions have sent Hindus fleeing to India.

Pakistan has the dubious distinction of jailing more for blasphemy than any other country.

Second paradox: While Pakistan is definitely a Muslim majority state, there may actually be no religious majority. There are several groups traditionally considered religious minorities in the Pakistani context: Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, and Parsis. However, there are other religious minorities too – Ahmadi Muslims for instance. Shia Muslims are the largest religious minority, believed to be 20% of the population. Numbers are hard to come by, but taken together these groups might constitute a quarter of the overall population. And even within the majority there are divisions between Barelvis, Deobandis, Ahl-e-Hadiths, and countless others. Each consider themselves to exhibit the correct understanding of Islam, while often viewing themselves as a minority.

Third paradox: Pakistani law is both the problem and the solution. Pakistan's legal environment is particularly repressive due to its blasphemy laws and other religiously discriminatory legislation and constitutional provisions targeting Ahmadis. September of this year marked the 40th anniversary of the passage of the Second Amendment to the Constitution, which resulted in the classification of the Ahmadi community as non-Muslim, declaring them to be the religious "other" and presaging discrimination and violence. The upholding of the death sentence on Asia Bibi for blasphemous activity shone a spotlight on how Pakistan's blasphemy law represses. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) is aware of 38 individuals currently on death row or serving life sentences on blasphemy convictions. Countless other Pakistanis have been arrested for the same "crime" and await sentencing. Pakistan has the dubious distinction of having more people in jail for blasphemy than any other country in the world.

Yet police have failed to enforce good laws that protect citizens, minority and majority alike, from sectarian and religiously-motivated violence. Pakistani authorities have not consistently brought perpetrators to justice or taken action against societal actors who incite violence. Prime Minister Sharif's strong condemnation of the killing of the Christians is welcomed, but it must be followed by concrete action. There is scepticism born of experience that this time will be different. In almost every previous instance of violence against religious minorities, perpetrators are initially arrested and charged but few are ever jailed for their violence.

Pakistan faces many challenges. There are no silver bullets, but the international community should not turn away.

Fourth paradox: In the midst of all these challenges, there may be opportunities. The killing of the two Christians and the Shia for blasphemy will be a litmus test for Prime Minister Sharif. Will the government seriously prosecute and win judgments? Will the Prime Minister step forward, as the Zardari government did in the blasphemy case of Rimsha Masih, and press charges? Another opportunity is to implement the very good Supreme Court decision of former chief justice Jilani calling for special commissions, police forces and other protections for minorities.

The international community can be a positive force. In November 2014 some 21 members of parliament from around the world, representing different regions, faiths, and political parties, sent a remarkable letter which called on Mr. Sharif to see that justice is had. Pakistan's support for Resolution 16/18 of the United Nations Human Rights Council, calling for the combating of violence and intimidation on the basis of religion or belief, also offers a way to partner with Islamabad on tackling violence against minorities.

USCIRF has recommended steps the United States can take to encourage Pakistan to address these difficult issues. Some are geared towards pressure, while others extend a hand. For instance, designating Pakistan as a "country of particular concern" would enable the United States to more effectively press Islamabad to undertake needed reforms. Also the US government and its allies can encourage the reestablishment of the Federal Ministry for Interfaith Harmony, as well as include discussions on religious tolerance in strategic dialogues and summits. Assistance could be provided for capacity-building in the provincial Ministries of Minority Affairs, an institution unique to Pakistan.

Pakistan faces many challenges. There are no silver bullets, but the international community should not turn away. Instead, sustained engagement can hopefully move Pakistan away from the abyss of endless sectarian violence, human rights violations, and instability.

 

Knox Thames is the Director of Policy and Research at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The views expressed here are his own. He can be followed on Twitter @thames22.