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Unveiling Pakistan's Religious Freedom: Progress and Perils

It is crucial for us to work collectively toward building an inclusive and tolerant society that respects and safeguards religious freedom.
by TNN Editor - 06 Jun, 2023 1705

Ayesha Shaikh

Pakistan is a religiously diverse country, with Muslims comprising the majority and Hindus, Christians, Ahmadis, and others forming the minority. Despite being an Islamic nation, the country faces significant challenges in progressing toward religious freedom, although specific measures have been implemented to address the issue's intensity.

The Quran, the holy book of Muslims, also promotes religious freedom over coercion, as stated in Surah al-Baqarah: 'There is no compulsion in religion' (2.256). In simple terms, every individual has the fundamental right to practice their religion without fear of persecution or discrimination, known as religious freedom.

In recent years, Pakistan has faced scrutiny regarding the extent to which it protects religious freedom. This article aims to provide an overview of the current state of religious freedom in Pakistan and the ongoing challenges.

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Despite various initiatives to promote interfaith dialogue and harmony, blasphemy laws remain a contentious issue in the country. Initially enacted to protect religious sentiments, these laws have been misused, leading to mob violence and extremism against religious minorities, who continue to suffer.

The accusations have also created divisions among minority groups. Media reports highlight cases where the police have killed, assaulted, or neglected religious minorities, resulting in chaos. Although no one has been executed for blasphemy, courts have enforced blasphemy statutes carrying the death sentence, such as in the case of Syed Muhammad Zeeshan in Mardan, as ruled by an anti-terrorism court in 2023.

The U.S. Department of State's 2022 Report on International Religious Freedom in Pakistan indicates that civil society organizations reported 52 blasphemy or religion-based criminal cases, with most of them targeting Ahmadis. The report also states that two Christians and two Muslims were executed for blasphemy in 2022.

Forced conversions pose another religious restriction on minority girls, particularly Hindus, and Christians in Pakistan. Approximately 1000 young girls, often underage, are forcefully married to older Muslim men, falsely portraying it as a consensual marriage. These cases involve coercion, threats, and abduction, raising concerns about protecting religious freedom and individuals' rights to choose their faith.

The government's failure to establish peace and enforce the rule of law has exacerbated this significant threat to human rights. Although Pakistan's constitution prohibits forced marriage under the Penal Code, Chapter XX-A, Offenses against Women, the number of cases has been increasing rather than decreasing.

The Child Marriage Restraint Act passed in 1929, was deemed unIslamic by the council of Islamic ideology, leading to minimal implementation. A notable case that exemplifies this issue is that of Revita Megwar, a 16-year-old Hindu girl who was kidnapped and later reappeared, apparently having converted to Islam. Her parents filed a petition for her return, while her husband filed a separate petition seeking protection for his family. Due to conflicting legal applications from different religious groups, the Islamic marriage law prevailed over the Marriage Restraint Law, resulting in the court ordering Revita to be returned to her husband.

These differences and conflicts have had a detrimental impact on peace and harmony in Pakistan, with minority groups experiencing increasing discrimination and marginalization. Additionally, sectarian violence and attacks within the Muslim community, including between Sunnis and Shias, further disrupt the overall climate of religious freedom and harmony in the country. Despite efforts to prevent such violent reactions by religious extremists and protect religious freedom, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan continues to raise concerns without seeing significant progress.

International pressure groups and activists have been assisting Pakistan in addressing religious freedom challenges. Pakistan is reminded at bilateral and multilateral forums to protect religious minorities and uphold religious freedom. However, concrete results are yet to be seen.

Given the growing concerns, Pakistan must continue promoting religious freedom and tolerance, actively involving the youth in initiatives to raise awareness and promote a shift in mindset.

International peace and human rights organizations should collaborate on projects involving various institutions and offices to facilitate discussions on religious freedom. A platform should be established to promptly address issues related to blasphemy legislation, forced conversions, discrimination, and sectarian violence. Additionally, peace education should be incorporated into training programs in the public and private sectors to enhance security and reduce threats.

It is crucial for us to work collectively toward building an inclusive and tolerant society that respects and safeguards religious freedom. The path of extremism poses dangers to our present and future generations and their well-being. By striving for a harmonious society, we can ensure a safer and brighter future for all.

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the organization.