ISLAMABAD, Aug 30: In a rare show of unity, religious scholars and liberals here on Thursday jointly called for government action against sectarian violence, warning that, if left unchecked, the menace can imperil the country.

They sounded the warning at two seminars held by the Jinnah Institute and the Organisation of Research and Education in the wake of killings and persecution in the name of religion across the country.

Allama Tahir Mehmood Ashrafi of the All Pakistan Ulema Council, who addressed at both seminars, accused Interior Minister Rehman Malik of failing to provide protection to 350 Christian families who felt threatened after a little girl of the community was branded a blasphemer, and distributed a compilation of Fatwas by the leading schools of thought that declared killing of unarmed members of any religion or sect un-Islamic.

And security analyst Imtiaz Gul plainly declared that “until the society bury the culture of protecting and patronising the groups spreading sectarian hatred, we will not be able to end faith-based violence in Pakistan.”

Columnist Nadir Hassan noted that sectarian violence has long been treated as a law and order issue while it is one of political identity.

There is a need to address weaknesses  in the system of law enforcement, he said.

Defence analyst Ayesha Siddiqa, expanding the point, said “the State's capacity to  manage policing and public prosecution in an effective way was a key issue in Shia killings”.

She stressed that civil society in Pakistan needs to engage with Islamic jurisprudence and discourse and find inherent messages of peace and pluralism in order to change public mindset on the issue of sectarianism, violence, terrorism and militancy.

Although critical of the interior minister, Allama Ashrafi felt that those trying to implicate the Christian girl in blasphemy case were conspiring to strengthen the cause of the anti-blasphemy law campaigners.

“It is strange that in the presence of all political parties and leaders, President Zardari and PM Raja Pervez Ashraf, the uprooted 350 Christian families are living in fear of some vested interests who were eying their properties,” he said.

Allama Ashrafi criticised unnamed religious figures “who are threateningly opposing bail to the poor jailed Christian girl and thereby trying to deny her fair trial”.

“Pakistan is threatened by violence in the name of religion,” he said.

Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf women wing president Fauzia Kasuri said that her party is to hold a seminar next month to discuss inter-faith harmony.

PML-N chairman Raja Zafarul Haq said the minorities in Pakistan enjoyed equal rights with others “but things flare up out of proportion when western elements indulge in negative statements”.

Minorities’ representative Akram Masih Gil agreed with him to the extent that the minorities are “living in safety like other citizens” but stressed that peace and interfaith harmony could only be achieved when all segments of society respect each other's religious sentiments.

Leaders of the Jamaat-i-Islami and PML-Q also spoke in same vein.

At the Jinnah Institute, Imtiaz Gul cited examples where state allocated green belts in Islamabad to seminaries and mosques even though no construction was permitted in these areas.

Fawad Chaudhry, Adviser to the Prime Minister on Human Rights, reiterated the government's commitment to fighting extremism and  militancy in the country and highlighted “the high risks public officials face in their line of duty”.

Human Rights Activist, Tahira Abdullah, noted that it is not just fear but also the lack of unity among civil society that prevents them from coming together as one cohesive unit that is capable of demanding change.

She said that the Rimsha Masih case is a test case for the Pakistani state and civil society.

Farman Ali, a journalist, said that the judiciary needed to play a more active role  in clamping down on and punishing extremist and sectarian outfits “operating with impunity across the country - even in the federal capital”.

Justice (retired) Ali Nawaz Chohan observed that while judges do operate in an environment of fear, and with minimum resources, it was their duty to write judgments in accordance with the law of the land, without letting fear dictate their pronouncements.

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