‘Space for religious minorities in Pakistan shrinking’

Updated 26 Sep 2018

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(L-R) MNA Ramesh Kumar, former senator Afrasiab Khattak, HRCP’s Nasreen Azhar, Farhatullah Babar and Bushra Gohar at the inaugural meeting of the National Interfaith Working on Tuesday. — Photo by Tanveer Shahzad
(L-R) MNA Ramesh Kumar, former senator Afrasiab Khattak, HRCP’s Nasreen Azhar, Farhatullah Babar and Bushra Gohar at the inaugural meeting of the National Interfaith Working on Tuesday. — Photo by Tanveer Shahzad

ISLAMABAD: The National Interfaith Working Group established by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) held its inaugural meeting on Tuesday where it discussed the facilitation of interfaith dialogue and collective advocacy, awareness and action to protect the fundamental rights of religious minorities.

During the meeting, members of civil society, the media, government and political parties discussed the group’s future strategy and plan of action.

Former senator Farhatullah Babar said the rights of minorities have been shrinking, and intolerance toward them by the state and by society increasing, despite constitutional guarantees, religious injunctions and international covenants that Pakistan has signed in this regard.

HRCP’s National Interfaith Working Group holds inaugural meeting

“I would suggest that the HRCP engage bodies like the National Commission on Human Rights, the Ministry of Human Rights, the human rights committees of the Senate and National Assembly and other bodies as force multipliers to carry forward this task,” he said.

Mr Babar said attention should be given on setting up caucuses in parliament and in provincial assemblies to take up the causes of religious minorities, similar to the women’s caucus in parliament.

Former senator Afrasiab Khattak also emphasised the importance of democratic struggle in this regard.

“There is a need to establish an interfaith committee to address the issues confronted by our religious minorities. They are people of this soil, no matter which religious they follow, as Pakistan is the homeland of people belonging to different religious beliefs,” he said.

For the last 70 years, we have only said that religion is a personal matter and the state’s only role is of a facilitator, former MNA Bushra Gohar said.

She also criticised the government for removing renowned economist Mian Atif from the Economic Advisory Council because of his religion.

“The role of political parties is very crucial in this regard. Unfortunately, whenever we face pressure from extremist groups parties that claimed to be moderate, like the Pakistan Peoples Party, take a back-foot position and play a defensive role,” she said.

Fatima Atif, a representative of the Hazara community, said their community has not officially been declared a minority but is still suffering because of their faith.

“Our right to life is being violated because we are a Hazara community. I am sorry to say that the roles of commissions or caucuses are not satisfactory in absence of political willingness,” she said.

Romana, a Christian, also criticised organisations that believed Christians were there to work as cleaners and sweepers.

She said the space for minorities was shrinking in Pakistan.

A circular was issued at the end of the meeting that stated: “Apart from regular interaction with local and provincial stakeholders, including political representatives, the group will also carry out fact-finding exercises to monitor and promote freedom of religion and belief across the country, based on local realities and needs.”

It added that given the wave of religiously motivated violence this year alone, the HRCP believes it is critical that policymakers and civil society be prepared to take bolder and more consistent stances of freedom of religion and belief.

Published in Dawn, September 26th, 2018