Prime Minister Imran Khan has reaffirmed the government's commitment to protect religious minorities, saying members of such communities are equal citizens of Pakistan and it is the state's duty to ensure their safety.
In a wide-ranging interview with Turkish media outlet A News, broadcast on Wednesday, the premier termed as "unfortunate" and "terrible" the killing over the weekend of 11 Shia Hazara coal miners in Balochistan's Mach area and the mob attack on a Hindu shrine in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's Karak district last month.
Prime Minister Imran attributed the attacks on Hazaras to "the legacy of the 1980s" when Pakistan participated in the Afghan jihad.
"One of the worst outcomes of the jihad was [militant] sectarianism in Pakistan. So we have been lumbered with this legacy. We had these militant sectarian groups and the Hazara Shia community in Balochistan was targeted by these Sunni extremist groups.
"It was very unfortunate because ... not just that we had these extremist sectarian groups, [but] these groups have morphed with ISIS or Daesh," he said, referring to the militant Islamic State (IS) group which claimed responsibility for the Mach massacre.
The premier said he could understand the pain of the Hazara community because the last time they were targeted, he was in the opposition. "I actually went there and then too they didn't want to bury the dead until there were certain promises given," he recalled.
"We will assure them of complete support and protection," Imran said.
Relatives of the slain miners have been protesting outside Quetta for four days along with the coffins of the deceased. One of their demands is for Prime Minister Imran to visit them.
Amidst criticism over not visiting the protest camp so far, the premier earlier today urged Balochistan's Hazaras to bury the bodies of the miners, promising he would visit them "very soon".
Referring to the vandalising of the Hindu shrine in Karak, Prime Minister Imran said the government had "immediately taken action and arrested everyone" and had also pledged to rebuild the temple.
"We believe that minorities in Pakistan are equal citizens and the job of the state is to protect them," he emphasised.
Islamophobia 'not addressed'
Prime Minister Imran also recalled the roots of, and his government's efforts against, Islamophobia in the West, saying Muslim leaders had failed to address the gap between Muslims and non-Muslims in Western countries.
"I saw the evolution of Islamophobia in Western countries and if I have to put a date on it, it was that awful character Salman Rushdie; he wrote this book which insulted our Holy Prophet (PBUH).
"And since then two things happened: One, in the west they could not understand the reaction of the Muslims when our Holy Prophet was insulted. And because they could not understand it they believed that Islam was against freedom of speech. So they put it on freedom of speech that [a] man can write anything in a book not understanding the love, respect and reverence we have for our Holy Prophet," he said.
On the other hand, the premier noted, Muslims living in Western countries got "very agitated" and some even became violent in response to offensive acts of non-Muslims targeting Islam.
"They believed that it was deliberately targeting the Muslim community; the fact is that the Western people do not understand, they cannot understand the way we feel for our Prophet because they don't consider their own holy sacred entities the way we do. In fact, they don't treat religion like we do, especially in Europe," he said.
"Therefore, this gap of misunderstanding between the two communities — the Muslims living in the Western communities and the Western communities — [kept growing] and unfortunately this gap was not addressed," the prime minister added.
He said the gulf should have been addressed by leaders of the Muslim world "who should have got together and explained on world forums [...] to the Western countries that if you, under the garb of freedom of speech, in the West caricature, insult or mock either our Holy Quran or our Holy Prophet, then there will be a reaction".
"Unfortunately, the Muslim leadership did not do so. Therefore this gap over a period of time, especially after 9/11, has just grown more and more and so has Islamophobia. This gap of misunderstanding and Islamophobia have grown together."
Prime Minister Imran criticised the French government's handling of Islamophobia, saying they had "equated terrorism to Islam" which would have "long term consequences".
He said when sections of the Muslim population reacted violently to acts such as caricatures ridiculing Islamic personalities, the French authorities instead of understanding their sentiments clamped down on Muslim communities, "who then become ghettoised and get more radicalised".
"Marginalisation creates radicalisation," he stressed.
'Want US to be even-handed between Pakistan and India'
Asked about his expectations from the incoming administration of US President-elect Joe Biden, Prime Minister Imran said it was "difficult to predict" what trajectory the Pakistan-US relationship will take under the new leader.
"But what I can say is we want the US to be even-handed between Pakistan and India; that's all we want. What we do not want is what is happening right now where India is supposed to be this big ally of the Western countries against China," he said.
The premier said he could not understand why there had to be a rivalry with China to the point where the US would need allies to counterbalance Beijing.
"This policy is difficult for Pakistan because then the whole thing gets lopsided; India is favoured, Pakistan's legitimate rights are ignored," he added, noting that Pakistan had given "huge sacrifices" for the US in the Afghan jihad and its aftermath.
Ties with Israel?
In response to a question, Prime Minister Imran reiterated that Pakistan would not follow some Arab countries in recognising and normalising ties with Israel.
He said while every country "has its own foreign policy [and] interests", doing so would make Pakistan "completely lose" its moral standing to support the Kashmir cause, and would go against Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah's policy of not recognising Israel until the Palestinians were given their own homeland.
He said no one had or could "put pressure on me" to recognise Israel because Pakistan was a democratic country.
The people of Pakistan have an emotional attachment to the Palestinian cause which "means that if anyone in this country who is a democratic leader decides to recognise Israel, he would be going against the will of the people of this country".