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  • Writer's pictureKnox Thames

In Pakistan, religious freedom is withering


The torching of churches in Pakistan has brought to global attention the dire state for religious minorities in that troubled country.


Matters related to blasphemy represent health and safety hazards for all involved, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. But the threats to minorities are particularly acute, as demonstrated by unchecked mobs ransacking churches and Christian homes in the town of Jaranwala over false allegations of blasphemy.


Pakistan has the notorious distinction of having the harshest blasphemy law in the world, with dozens and dozens jailed. According to observers, "so far this year, at least 59 cases of blasphemy have been reported, while four individuals have been murdered under such allegations."


But radicals want more.


Elections are horrible times for religious minorities, and especially so in Pakistan. The country’s political upheavals continue with no end in sight, as the sentencing of former PM Imran Khan to three years in jail will bring little calm, further exacerbating political conflict and dysfunction. In this turmoil, extremists, aided and abetted by authorities, continue to attack those who believe differently, with increasingly little hope for state protection.


With elections called, the likelihood of increased attacks runs high as politicians scramble to court the extremist vote.


Already this year, the extremist political party Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP) successfully pushed for harsher penalties, and politicians responded. To head off TLP's long march on Islamabad, then-Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif signed off in June on a 12-point agreement that would, among other things, create a counter-blasphemy wing within the Federal Investigation Agency and establish a social media filter to remove blasphemous content.


But that wasn't enough. In August, the Senate passed a law increasing, to 10 years to life in prison the penalty for blasphemy deemed to insult Muhammad's companions, wives, and family members. Other bills that gave sweeping powers to Pakistan’s all-powerful military were also rushed through. Although many consider the blasphemy system to be already rife with corruption and abuse, politicians did not bother to incorporate reforms into the process. Instead, they cut procedural corners and rushed the bill through the lower and upper house, to the point that Pakistan's Human Rights Minister, Riaz Hussain Pirzada, wrote Sharif expressing concern about the process used to pass the bill. In doing so, Pirzada risked his own safety, as ministers have been killed for less.


Religious freedom watchdog CSW also fretted that the legislation was "approved without debate by Pakistan's parliament despite the fact that existing blasphemy legislation has resulted in extra-judicial killings and countless incidents of mob violence based on false accusations."


The mob attacks followed on August 16, with advocates reporting 19 churches entirely burned out and 89 Christian homes destroyed. Based on past experience, mob leaders have little fear of punishment, despite authorities arresting over 100 individuals for suspected involvement. Authorities also charged two Christians for alleged blasphemous activity. It is much more likely the two Christians will spend years in jail than any of the vandals who torched churches and homes.


Bishop Azad Marshall of the Church of Pakistan called for an “end to Judicial Apartheid through the fair and equal application of laws between the majority and minority populations” at a press conference with Muslim leaders. Similarly, Pakistani Catholic cleric Michael Nazir-Ali wrote that the attacks are "the result of legal extremism as in the blasphemy laws and their misuse, the changing of mentalities through the teaching of hate in books, and appeasing extremist movements in their demands for more extremist measures." He concluded, "Christians will not be the only community to be targeted."


One example is the ongoing destruction of Ahmadi Muslim places of worship and graveyards across Pakistan. Hated by extremists and discriminated against by the state, neither the Ahmadis nor their sanctuaries nor cemeteries are safe. The community has tracked 15 attacks on their mosques and cemeteries this year. Authorities rarely, if ever, intervene to stop these attacks, and those who assault are never held to account, thus contributing to a climate of impunity.


Even worse, in four instances this year, the police themselves tore down the minarets. In increasingly radicalized Pakistan, Ahmadis are the perfect scapegoat. It is politically smart to court the anti-Ahmadi vote, or at least to be silent about the Ahmadis' precarious situation.


In theory, Pakistani law protects different religious practices. The torching of churches just days after Pakistan's 76th anniversary of nationhood is a tragic indictment of the country's health.


Many politicians and generals quoted the nation's founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, during events. But Jinnah had spoken about religious minorities at the Constituent Assembly in 1947: "You are free; you are free to go to your temples; you are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed — that has nothing to do with the business of the state."


Unfortunately, those words are honored in the breach while churches burn and Ahmadi mosques are dismantled.


Amid Pakistan's political turmoil and with elections on the horizon, any hope of reform has disappeared for now. In fact, things could get worse. Politicians will be tempted to play to base instincts about faith and flag, drawing the lines narrowly around certain theologies while excluding others.


Already, a Quran-burning in Sweden has resulted in mass protests in Pakistan. Seeing the results of such emotive issues, extremist parties such as TLP will push their extreme agenda, likely forcing more mainline parties to lurch rightward to compete for this vote in a tight election.


The church burnings are not an outlier but a symptom of repression and discrimination that is aided and abetted by the state. While positive Pakistan’s political leadership expressed solidarity, visited the Christian community, and condemned the violence, election seasons present politicians opportunities to curry favor with extremists. In Pakistan’s unstable environment, religious minorities provide useful strawmen for creating scapegoats and justifying promises of "reform." One party will win, but without real reform and accountability for violence, religious minorities will lose regardless of the outcome.


Knox Thames served in a special envoy role for religious minorities at the U.S. State Department during the Obama and Trump administrations. He is a senior fellow at Pepperdine University.


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