The question of religious freedom in Pakistan cannot be separated from the political events that characterised the first sixty years of the life of the nation. Born as a modern nation in August 1947, with the status of a Dominion of the British Commonwealth, it had to face up to a number of political emergencies right away. First of all the internal conflict generated by the secessionist impulses of the eastern part of the country, Bengal, which gave rise in 1971 to the independence of the region under the name of Bangladesh, followed by the still unsolved question of the Kashmir, contested by India and Pakistan. But above all, the country has been marked by strong instability marked by the coming and going of regimes created by democratic elections and military regimes produced after coups.
Two years after the dissolution of the Dominion and the creation of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan (1956), the army took power. This was followed in 1971 by a civilian government led by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto but in 1977 a new coup led to the government of General Zia-ul-Haqq (1977-1988) which implemented a series of measures systematically directed towards the re-Islamisation of the state and society and the eradication of non-Islamic practices in the country. In 1988, following the death of the general in an air crash, new elections handed back the country to civilian hands which was led successively by Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. But the military took back control of the state in 1999 with Pervez Musharaf, whose regime ended in August 2008 after the holding of the general election in February of that year. Despite these numerous changes relating to the government of the country, the political and social identity of Pakistan remains marked by the regime of Zia-ul-Haqq whose policies of Islamisation left a deep impress on current legislation and on the still operative Constitution.
According to the Constitution, Islam is the state religion, even though religious minorities are formally recognised as having full freedom of worship. In a country inhabited by 168 million people, 96% of whom according to the latest census (1998) are Muslims, the principal minorities are made of Hindus, Christians and Ahmads, who make up 1-2% of the population, and Parsees, Sikhs and Buddhists, who have about twenty thousand adherents.
Despite the formal guarantees, in reality there are strong limitations on religious freedom. Freedom of expression is constitutionally subjected to ‘the reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of the glory of Islam’ and many rights connected with religious freedom are systematically violated. The principal victims of these violations are the adherents of the Ahmadiyya, a movement that was born in the Punjab in 1889, of Sunni origins, but which was declared non-Islamic in 1974 by the so-Called anti-Ahmad laws which prohibited the Ahmad faithful from declaring that they are Muslims and from propagating their faith or offending the religious feelings of Muslims. But the other minorities, even though they are formally free to engage in worship, are also subject to strong discrimination and an endemic social violence, and are often persecuted or intimidated on the basis of an anti-blasphemy law, as for that matter also takes place in the case of Muslim reformists. Between 2006 and 2007 alone there were tens of cases involving the members of religious minorities or Muslim reformists being the victims of persecution, arrest, torture, lynching and false accusations, specifically following an accusation of blasphemy. There have also been numerous cases of discrimination, at times with violence.
On November 2005, for example, the Catholic Bishop of Islamabad-Rawalpindi denounced the expropriations that had been forced on two hundred Christians of the Sindh whose houses had been handed over to an equal number of Muslim victims of the earthquake of October of that year.
At times the recurrent phenomena of discrimination, although carried out on a religious basis, have a social dimension, above all in the case of Christians. Many Christians come from families that belong to inferior castes who were converted to Christianity and are thus discriminated against because of their origins as well.
On the Outskirts of Karachi
In the educational field as well there are de facto restrictions on religious freedom. Islamic studies are obligatory for all Muslin students in state schools. Although the students of other religions are not legally obliged to study Islam they do not have the same right to be instructed in their religion. In some schools they can only study Akhlaqiyyat, that is to say ethics. Discrimination also takes place in access to educational institutions. The Constitution forbids admission based on criteria of religious discrimination. However, students have to declare their religion on the admission forms. In addition, Muslims have to declare in written form that they believe in Mohammed as the last prophet, a measure that excludes and isolates the Ahmads who see their founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad as the Messiah sent before the final judgement.
The right to the publication of texts and books is not generally limited by the government but the selling of Ahmad literature is forbidden, in the same way as the publication of texts that are critical of Islam or its prophet or offensive to the religion of other people is prohibited.
In reality, the government continues to invoke inter-religious dialogue, harmony between all the communities of the country and moderation, and to organise meetings and seminars to promote exchange between the various adherents of the religions in the country. It neither prohibits nor restricts the right of families to bring up their children in line with religious principles. And the large number of private schools present in the country have the right to choose whether they wish to provide religious education or not. The missionaries (with the exception of Ahmad missionaries) can work in the country and engage in proselytism as long as the targets of this propaganda are not Muslims and as long as they do not preach against Islam.
The strongest tensions, however, arise within society. One of the principal flash points of violence is the Islamic Koranic schools which for some years have spread an extremist and terroristic form of Islam. They operate above all in the rural areas where they constitute the only possible form of education. These schools operate prevalently in the rural areas where they constitute the only possible form of education. In an attempt to end the spread of extremism, in 2002 the government issued an ordinance for their registration so as to prevent them from receiving funding from abroad and accepting foreign students. This operation, which according to the government led to the registration of eleven thousand of the thirteen to fifteen thousand Koranic schools in existence, thereby subjecting them to state control and financing, has not, however, managed to extirpate the phenomenon of religious intolerance. The most extremist Koranic schools, which are often controlled by the Koranic school of Deoband, remain active in the Federally administrated tribal areas and in northern Baluchistan. In the same way, the Dawa School, a creation of the Jamat-ud-Dawa, continues to engage in activities involving training and recruitment for Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, a well-known foreign terrorist organisation. A report of March 2007 indicated that extremist and uncontrolled Koranic schools continued to prosper in the outskirts of Karachi, areas inhabited by a large population of unemployed young people.
The climate of tension created by these institutions generates a situation of permanent violence and social discrimination. There have been numerous cases of forced conversions and here religious minorities accuse the government of not doing enough. The representatives of the Hindu community in Sindh, for example, refer to the forced conversion of fifteen to twenty thousand Hindu families every year, and the associations for the defence of human rights stress the growing phenomenon of Hindu girls, especially in Karachi and in other areas of Sindh, being kidnapped, forced to convert and then being compelled to marry their kidnappers. In February 2007 a Muslim kidnapped two Christian brothers who had refused to convert to Islam and tortured them for a month. In May of the same year an elderly woman aged eighty-six was forced to convert to Islam by the local religious authorities after her husband had been arrested on the charge of blasphemy.
In reality, positive developments as regards religious freedom are not absent. In addition to the already mentioned attempts to place the Koranic schools under control in order to prevent extremist education, and the meetings organised for inter-religious dialogue, a number of concrete facts may be observed. For example, in January 2007 two Muslim students of the University of Peshawar appealed to a tribunal to block the building of a Christian church on the land of the university. On 23 January the High Court of Peshawar rejected their appeal and authorised the building of the Church, declaring in its sentence that ‘Islam assures religious freedom to minorities; there are therefore no legal impediments to the building of places of worship, as established by the Constitution’.
But in the country there remains a high level of inter-communal violence and tension, not only with respect to religious minorities but also between the various Muslim groups. The problem is that the presence of discriminatory laws and the spread of an intolerant Islam taught in many schools, fanned through the press and preached in the mosques, have created a favourable terrain for violence. In these circumstances usually the police refuse to intervene, allowing the tensions to explode in episodes of religious persecution. Thus there have been episodes involving the lynching of people accused of blasphemy or Hindu temples, Christian churches and Shiite or Ahmad mosques being attacked and set on fire.
And this situation seems for the moment to be destined to remain as it is, above all in the regions on the border with Afghanistan where the influence of the Talebans is strongest.
Stay up to date: sign up for our newsletter
For insights and analysis subscribe to our biannual journal