Pakistan’s religious minorities confront violence and discrimination
The death toll of more than 100 during Pakistan’s general election campaign has drawn attention to the political violence that is part of the country’s life. But there is also sectarian violence, as Pakistan’s religious minorities know only too well.
George Nicholas Robinson is a Christian, a minority that makes up less than two per cent of the Islamic republic’s population.
Robinson works as a lawyer and is standing for the National Assembly as an independent to draw attention to his community’s plight.
Most Christians are poor, traditionally limited to menial jobs, and live under the constant threat of accusations of blasphemy, which can mean the death penalty.
That’s what happened to two Christian girls - Asia Bibi and Rimsha Masih - in 2010 and 2012 respectively. Their cases grabbed headlines around the world but they were not the first.
Asia Bibi was sentenced to death, although the sentence has not been carried out and she may be pardoned.
In 2010 two politicians who questioned the justice of the blasphemy law – Punjab governor Salman Taseer and minorities minister Shabaz Bhatti, himself a Christian, were murdered.
Masih, who is illiterate and has learning disabilities, was accused of burning pages of the Koran, but media coverage of her case revealed that her principal accuser, a mullah, had faked the evidence, apparently in the hope of taking over the land of the Christian area where she lived.
Both were arrested and later released on bail.
In March this year a mob torched Joseph Colony, a Christian district of Lahore.
Robinson, who has taken up the case in his lawyer’s capacity, claims that the police helped the attackers.
He says they were acting under pressure from Shahbaz Sharif, chief minister of Punjab province and the brother of Nawaz Sharif, who may be Pakistan’s next prime minister.
“The police went to these homes and told all the people that there might be a threat of an attack so you should vacate your homes, we will protect your properties,” he explains.
“Once they left their homes [the mob] attacked their homes, burned them down and Shahbaz Sharif and allies had planned to grab it because the Christians wouldn’t come back because of fear.”
Sharif’s son, Hamza Shahbaz Sharif, has an unhealthy interest in acquiring property, according to Robinson, and faces a number of cases relating to his methods in doing so.
In another case Robinson is handling, a Christian girl is accused of sending blasphemous text messages. She claims that her sim card was stolen and that she may be the victim of a personal vendetta.
If anti-Christian violence is often motivated by greed or local disputes, violence against minority Muslim groups is more clearly sectarian.
Shia Muslims make up 25-30 per cent of the country’s population.
For many years hardline Sunni armed groups have carried out sectarian attacks against them, especially in the massive, cosmopolitan port city Karachi and the west of the country.
Shia armed groups appeared in the 1990s in response to the attacks.
Almost 200 Shia members of the Hazara ethnic group have been killed in Balochistan, a vast mineral-rich but money-poor province where both separatist armed groups and Taliban operate.
Assad Abbas Shah is a candidate for a new Shia party, the Majlis Wahrdat ul-Muslim (MWM), in Lahore.
He blames the Taliban and other armed groups that support the hardline Deobandi school of Islam for the sectarian attacks.
“There’s organised Shia ethnic cleansing in Quetta and areas where Hazaras live, especially,” he says. “And we’ve seen the same thing happening in Karachi and parts of Sindh.That particular sect is not just against Shia, it’s also against a Sunni group, the Rae Barelis, that promotes a tolerant version of Islam.”
Age-old shrines to Sufi mystics have also been attacked and the Amhadi sect, whose members are forbidden to call themselves Muslims by Pakistani law, have seen their mosques and homes destroyed.
Analyst Syed Farooq Hasnat insists that most Pakistanis oppose sectarianism and says that the Deobandi gain money and support from outside the country.
“It’s Deobandi versus the rest,” he says. “Of course, supported by Saudi Arabia, not necessarily the royal family, and the UAE, not the rulers. I would travel from Jordan to Karachi and we would see these princes boarding these planes. ‘What are they doing?’ I would ask the manager of PIA. ‘They’ve gone to attend some kind of religious gathering at some madrassa.’ Of course, they’re Deobandis by ideology.”
Shah also believes that Gulf interests back the armed Islamists and also prevent Pakistani governments cracking down on them.
“Over time we realised that the People’s Party, or whatever parties we used to vote for couldn’t sustain a clear stance against sectarian killings or terrorism when they came under foreign pressure,” he explains. “We tried to put our case but we were told that their hands were tied in certain cases and there was so much that they could do because they were under foreign pressure.”
Minority or not, the armed sectarians have made life hell for millions of Pakistanis and they have the backing, the money and the arms to carry on doing so.
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