BY KASWAR KLASRA
ISLAMABAD: Pakistan is a country of particular concern for religious freedom, suggested a report on International Religious Freedom released by US State Department’s office of International Religious Freedom, Today on Thursday.
Quoting civil society reports, it stated there were at least 84 individuals imprisoned on blasphemy charges, at least 29 of whom had received death sentences, as compared with 77 and 28, respectively, in 2018, in Pakistan.
The government has never executed anyone specifically for blasphemy. According to data provided by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), police registered new blasphemy cases against at least 10 individuals. Christian advocacy organizations and media outlets stated that four Christians were tortured or mistreated by police in August and September, resulting in the death of one of them.
On January 29, the Supreme Court upheld its 2018 judgment overturning the conviction of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010. Bibi left the country on May 7, after death threats made it unsafe for her to remain. On September 25, the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a man who had spent 18 years in prison for blasphemy.
On December 21, a Multan court sentenced English literature lecturer Junaid Hafeez to death for insulting the Prophet Muhammad after he had spent nearly seven years awaiting trial and verdict. NGOs continued to report lower courts often failed to adhere to basic evidentiary standards in blasphemy cases.
“Ahmadiyya Muslim community leaders continued to state they were affected by discriminatory and ambiguous legislation and court judgments that denied them basic rights, including a 2018 Islamabad High Court judgment that some government agencies used to deny national identification cards to Ahmadi Muslims”.
Throughout the year, some government officials and politicians engaged in anti-Ahmadi rhetoric and attended events that Ahmadi Muslims said incited violence against members of their community.
NGOs expressed concern that authorities often failed to intervene in instances of societal violence against religious minorities due to fear of the perpetrators, inadequate staff, or apathy. Perpetrators of societal violence and abuses against religious minorities often faced no legal consequences due to a lack of follow-through by law enforcement, bribes offered by the accused, and pressure on victims to drop cases.
In some cases of alleged kidnapping and forced conversions of young religious minority women, however, government authorities intervened to protect the alleged victim and ascertain her will.
On November 9, the government opened a newly refurbished Sikh holy site, the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib, along with a visa-free transit corridor for Sikh pilgrims traveling from India. Minority religious leaders stated members of their communities continued to experience discrimination in public schools and tertiary education, which resulted in very few religious minority applicants competing and qualifying for private and civil service employment.
Armed sectarian groups connected to organizations banned by the government as extremist, as well as groups designated as terrorist organizations by the United States and other governments, continued to stage attacks targeting Shia Muslims, including the predominantly Shia Hazara community.
According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), however, the number of sectarian attacks and killings by armed groups decreased compared with previous years, corresponding with a continued overall decline in terrorist attacks. On April 12, a bomb attack in Quetta, Balochistan, targeting Shia Hazaras killed 21 persons, including eight Hazaras. Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), and the Islamic State (ISIS) each claimed responsibility.
On May 7, terrorists affiliated with Hizbul Ahrar, a splinter group of TTP, attacked police stationed outside the Data Darbar Shrine in Lahore, the largest Sufi shrine in South Asia, killing nine and wounding 24. The government continued to implement the 2014 National Action Plan (NAP) against terrorism, including countering sectarian hate speech and extremism, as well as military and law enforcement operations against terrorist groups.
Multiple civil society groups and faith community leaders stated the government had increased efforts to provide enhanced security at religious minority places of worship, which had been frequent targets of attack in past years. Police and security forces throughout the country enhanced security measures during religious holidays, and no religious festival was disrupted by violence for the second year in a row.
Throughout the year, unidentified individuals targeted and killed Shia Muslims, including ethnic Hazaras, who are largely Shia, and Ahmadi Muslims in attacks believed to be religiously motivated. The attackers’ relationship to organized terrorist groups was often unclear.
Human rights activists reported numerous instances of societal violence related to allegations of blasphemy; of efforts by individuals to coerce religious minorities to convert to Islam; and of societal harassment, discrimination, and threats of violence directed at members of religious minority communities.
NGOs expressed concern about what they stated was an increasing frequency of attempts to kidnap, forcibly convert, and forcibly marry young women from religious minority communities, especially young Hindu and Christian women. There also continued to be reports of attacks on holy places, cemeteries, and religious symbols of Hindu, Christian, and Ahmadiyya minorities.
According to Ahmadi civil society organizations, the government failed to restrict advertisements or speeches inciting anti-Ahmadi violence, despite this responsibility being a component of the NAP. Civil society groups continued to express concerns about the safety of religious minorities.
Senior Department of State officials , including the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, Special Advisor for Religious Minorities, Charge d’Affaires, Consuls General, and embassy officers met with senior advisors to the prime minister, the minister for foreign affairs, the minister for human rights, the minister for religious affairs, and officials from these ministries to discuss blasphemy law reform; laws concerning Ahmadi Muslims; the need to better protect members of religious minority communities; sectarian relations; and religious respect.
The U.S. government provided training for provincial police officers on human rights and protecting religious minorities. Embassy officers met with civil society leaders, local religious leaders, religious minority representatives, and legal experts to discuss ways to combat intolerance and promote interfaith cooperation to increase religious freedom.
Visiting U.S. government officials met with minority community representatives, parliamentarians, human rights activists, and members of the federal cabinet to highlight concerns regarding the treatment of religious minority communities, the application of blasphemy laws, and other forms of discrimination on the basis of religion.
The Secretary of State praised the safe departure of Asia Bibi from Pakistan in May, and the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom expressed concern about the Junaid Hafeez blasphemy verdict on December 23. The embassy released videos discussing religious freedom and respect throughout the year.
On December 18, the Secretary of State redesignated Pakistan as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom, and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interests of the United States.