The (Non)Free Exercise of Religion

As Pakistan marks National Minorities Day, there are a few glimmers of tolerance in a country rife with religious and sectarian violence. 

As their nation celebrates National Minorities Day on Tuesday, August 11, many Pakistanis will recall these memorable words:

“You are free. You are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or any other places of worship….You may belong to any religion or caste or creed. That has nothing to do with the business of the state.”

On August 11, 1947, Pakistan’s founding father, Muhammed Ali Jinnah, proclaimed that message of acceptance of religious minorities in a historic speech to his country.

Sixty-one years later, in November 2008, Pakistan witnessed another historic event — a Christian being sworn in to its cabinet.

On that day, the new official eloquently echoed that message:

“I decided to become Federal Minister for Minority Affairs to advocate the cause of the oppressed and the marginalized communities of Pakistan. I have devoted my life to struggle for human equality, social justice, religious freedom, and to uplift and empower the religious minority communities of Pakistan.”

Less than three years later, in March 2011, the man who delivered those words was assassinated.

Shahbaz Bhatti’s murder shocked and grieved commissioners and staff members on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), on which we now serve, for he was a true friend and a force for liberty. His murder followed a similar atrocity just two months earlier, when another Pakistani government official, Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer, a Muslim, met the same fate.

Both men had defended a vision of a tolerant, multicultural society. Both had opposed Pakistan’s blasphemy law as a stark betrayal of that vision. Both paid the ultimate price for their courage.

So what happened? How did the vision atrophy?

A partial answer may be found in a USCIRF-sponsored study issued the following November.

Titled “Connecting the Dots: Education and Religious Discrimination in Pakistan,” the study examined Pakistan’s public school and madrassa systems, and included interviews with teachers and students. The goal was to explore linkages between the portrayal of religious minorities, biases against these minorities, and subsequent acts of discrimination or violence.

The study found that school textbooks either failed to mention Pakistan’s religious minorities or referred to them in derogatory ways.

Hindus and Christians were depicted in especially negative terms, with inaccurate and offensive references. Teachers had little understanding of religious minorities, expressed extremely negative views of Ahmadis, Christians, and Jews especially, and transmitted such biases to their students.

While USCIRF is updating the study and will release the findings later this year, the conclusion thus far is clear: Pakistan’s educational system has been part of the problem and not the solution, conveying the message that religious minorities are second-class human beings.

The results are tragically evident, as extremists target Shi’a Muslim processions, pilgrimages, and gathering places, launch vigilante and terrorist attacks against Christians, commit drive-by shootings against Ahmadis, compel Hindus to flee the country due to violence and forced conversions, and target dissenting Muslims.

In March of this year, we led the first-ever Commissioner-level USCIRF visit to Pakistan. We met with high-level officials including national security adviser Sartaj Aziz, the minister of interior, the religious affairs minister, and the attorney general, as well as madrassa leaders and religious minority members.

We saw how Pakistan remains a nation with serious challenges impacting religious freedom, including Pakistan’s blasphemy law and related statutes. We heard how they encourage acts of violence against the religious “other,” be they Christians, Hindus, or Muslims.

These issues, among others, underscore why we continue to call on the U.S. State Department to designate Pakistan a Country of Particular Concern, marking it as one of the world’s worst religious freedom violators.

To be sure, there are faint glimmers of hope on the horizon.

Punjab’s government announced earlier this year that it was reviewing blasphemy cases. The national government finally is talking of reforming Pakistan’s blasphemy law to add penalties for false accusations. And late last month, Pakistan’s Supreme Court in Lahore issued a stay of execution for Aasia Bibi and indicated that the full bench in Islamabad should hear her appeal.

We see opportunity for engagement with Pakistan. USCIRF has recommended that Washington initiate a bilateral engagement on religious freedom and tolerance. The United States also can direct its security assistance funds to help protect minority worship sites and other places where minorities congregate.

But such assistance will be for naught unless Pakistan takes action on its own.

Pakistan must break the vicious cycles of impunity and lawlessness by arresting, prosecuting, and jailing all perpetrators of violence against religious communities and their advocates. It must hold police officers accountable for turning a blind eye to attacks or refusing to file police reports when the victims are members of religious minorities. And while we applaud the ruling of Pakistan’s Supreme Court last year to create a special police force to protect religious minorities, as well as a national commission on minorities, Pakistan must implement it sooner rather than later.

Pakistan also must engage in educational reform by uprooting the intolerance in schools and textbooks. And it must repeal or dramatically reform its blasphemy and anti-Ahmadi laws.

On National Minorities Day, let Pakistan’s government, from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on down, rededicate itself fully to religious freedom and the value of tolerance articulated at its founding.

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