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Though predominantly Muslim, at around 95 per cent of the population, Pakistan nevertheless includes a wide variety of religious minorities, reflecting its long and complex history. Hindus (1.9 per cent) and Christians (1.6 per cent) make up the largest minorities, but there are also many smaller religious groups such as Bahá’i, Buddhists, Kalasha, Parsis, Sikhs and Zikris.
Furthermore, between 10 and 25 per cent of the Muslim population are Shi’a – a sect of Islam that, while fully recognized by law, does not in practice enjoy the same status and privileges as the Sunni majority. Even more marginalized, however, are the country’s Ahmadis: while their exact numbers are unknown, they include hundreds of thousands and possibly millions of Pakistanis who, while identifying as Muslims, have for decades been designated ‘non-Muslims’ in the Constitution.
Since independence, this diversity has been threatened by the rise of a highly exclusionary nationalism, which has favoured a narrow understanding of Islam. This has had serious implications for Pakistan’s religious minorities who, despite constitutional guarantees and international commitments, have found themselves in a situation where their rights to freely practise their religion are highly circumscribed. Attacks on places of worship – particularly against Christians, Hindus and, increasingly, Shi’a Muslims – forced conversion, and state-led bans on any manifestation of different beliefs, as is the case for Ahmadis, are just some of the violations faced by minorities on a frequent basis.
Meanwhile, Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, often used to settle personal scores and achieve political gains, continue to affect Pakistan’s minority communities disproportionately. Sentences for blasphemy laws can include the death penalty and accusations have frequently been followed by mob attacks on the accused. While serious violent incidents against minorities are generally perpetrated by non-state actors – including extremist outfits such as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and others – the state still needs to answer to the failure to control or bring such groups to justice. Such groups often act with near impunity and, at times, there have been allegations of state complicity.
Pakistan’s religious minorities also face discrimination along economic, social and cultural lines, and confront barriers to their effective participation in political life. These challenges are exacerbated for those such as lower-caste Hindus working as bonded labourers in southern Punjab’s brick kiln industry, Hazara Shi’a living Quetta, and minority women across the country who face intersectional discrimination, with religious discrimination operating alongside and reinforcing other systems of oppression. Rather than challenging such attitudes, the education system often reinforces intolerance and biases against religious minorities, through their representation in textbooks as well as everyday forms of discrimination in the classroom.
In response to the ongoing violence and discrimination targeted against Pakistan’s religious minorities, the government, at various levels, has taken some steps, including initiating an education reform process which began under General Pervez Musharraf, as well as the more recent National Action Plan, which includes curbing hate speech and protecting religious minorities among its stated aims. Since the passing of the 18th Amendment in 2010, which devolved minority related issues to the provinces, some pro-minority legislation has also been passed at this level, particularly in Sindh. While these are welcome developments, implementation of such policies and processes has often been slow. More sustained has been the work of civil society actors who, even amid high levels of violence, have made efforts to spread awareness and promote tolerance in Pakistan, often at their own risk, as highlighted by targeted attacks against activists.
Minority Rights Group International (MRG) has been working with activists in Pakistan on religious minority issues for many years. Along with its local partners, it is currently engaged in supporting human rights defenders to monitor and document violations against religious minorities, and to work together across religious lines in advocating for greater tolerance. As part of a broader initiative with work in Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka, it also aims to support dialogue and cooperation at a regional level, and draw connections between the challenges facing religious minorities in different parts of South Asia.
The aim of this publication is therefore to highlight ongoing violations of religious freedom and minority rights that have been documented by local rapporteurs, as well as case studies which help bring to the fore the lived realities of Pakistan’s religious minorities. The publication therefore aims to be a complement to more in-depth MRG publications surveying the situation facing religious minorities in Pakistan and the annual updates on the situation for its minorities in MRG’s State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples (SWM) report released each year.