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Pakistan census source of fear and hope for minorities

Marginalised, attacked and frequently hit by blasphemy charges, Pakistan’s religious minorities are hoping the country’s first census since 1998 will be a step towards greater political representation and rights.

In the congested Lahore district of Youhanabad, the largest Christian neighbourhood in Pakistan, activist Sajid Christopher says his community looks forward to standing up and being counted.

“The census will benefit us in two ways. Firstly we will be able to know about our exact population as so far there has been only guesswork,” he told AFP.

“Secondly, our representation in parliament will be according to our population as our present representation in the democratic system is based on the census of 1981,” he added.

Fast-growing Pakistan is the sixth most populous country in the world, with an estimated 200 million people, but has not held a census for nearly two decades, despite a constitutional requirement for one every decade.

The count was delayed for years by politicians squabbling over the potential implications.

Estimates are approximate and disputed, ranging from two to 10 million for Christians, and 2.5 to 4.5 million for Hindus.

Christopher’s views were echoed by Nancy Stiegler, an advisor for the UN Population Fund who called the census a “powerful tool for planning” not only for minorities, “but all the population of Pakistan”.

This desire for more accurate data goes to the heart of the controversy surrounding the census: that it will redraw political boundaries and force a redistribution of resources.

– Fear of being outed –

The process is not without complications — and not all religious minorities are eager to make themselves known.

Pakistan’s Ahmadis, a minority Islamic sect declared non-Muslims by law for their belief in a prophet after Mohammed, number an estimated 500,000 and are victims of persecution and violence.

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