In South Asia, and particularly in Pakistan, the case of religious violence is not new but in present times violence in the name of religion has developed its deeper roots. In 2008, during my trip to Nepal, I met hundreds of asylum seekers belonging to the Ahmadiya community of Pakistan. At that point, I couldn’t completely understand their plight of living with no identity in Nepal while facing numerous hardships. But when, in May 2010, a couple of Ahmadiya mosques were attacked by terrorists in Lahore (Pakistan) then I realized that the country is increasingly becoming insecure for religious minorities. This has become a huge push factor for Ahmadiyas to migrate to other countries, such as Nepal, Canada, UK, USA, Germany and so on.

In an environment of religious intolerance and mounting Islam-West conflict, in the backdrop of the war against terrorist groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan, blasphemy laws have increasingly been misused. Therefore, it is not surprising that the UK-based Minority Rights Group has put Pakistan seventh in the list of countries where minorities are highly under the threat.

According to official figures, over 96 percent of Pakistan's population is Muslim, with 3.54 percent religious minorities, including Christians, Hindu, Ahmadiya, Parsi, Buddhist, Sikh and others. As Christianity is the second biggest religion in the country, with 1.59 percent (roughly 2.5 million) followers, therefore, Christians have been highly exposed to the injustices, under blasphemy laws, in comparison to other minority groups; therefore, the focus of my article is on minority Christians. The article is also timely because considering the current circumstances, the country and perhaps the whole world needs to engage in dialogues on minority rights.

Recently, a Pakistani Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, was sentenced to death for insulting the Prophet Muhammad. Aasia is believed to be the first woman sentenced to death under Pakistan’s infamous laws therefore this issue has become international because the Pope Benedict XVI has demanded justice for the woman. The pressure from abroad has worked in Aasia’s case and as a consequence the President of Pakistan has initiated an inquiry over this matter.

Hereby, it is important to mention that though no-one has ever been executed under this law  around ten accused previously, were  found murdered even before the completion of their trials. Therefore, this matter needs to be considered seriously. Apart from the case of Aasia Bibi, there is a lot more to be discussed regarding the impact blasphemy laws have on majority vs. minority relations in Pakistan.

Shortly before the 62nd birthday of Pakistan in 2009, a tragic incident happened in Gojra of district Toba Tek Singh, in which a group of Muslims looted and burned houses and a Catholic church in the colony. As a result of this sad event, seven Christians were killed and 20 were injured. Similar to that, a group of extremists known as Sipah-e-Sahaba reacted over an incident that allegedly involved Christian children tearing pages of the Qur’an.

Such issues raised concerns over the protection of religious minorities in the country and personally affected me too since I am a person who identifies himself as a peacebuilder. The Gojra episode influenced me in many ways, not only because Toba Tek Singh is my hometown but also because the country, already facing various problems, cannot afford to ignore the issue of inter-religious conflicts.

According to a report of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, the Gojra incident was pre-planned and the police had the information that an attack was developing but did nothing to prevent it. The reaction of the local police did not surprise me because the majority belonging to the “followers” group tends to avoid any tension related to religious extremists. Thus, we need to brainstorm for the ways to protect the innocent from the reach of extremism propagated in the name of religion.

Muslim-Christian relations in Pakistan have reached their lowest ebb in the recent past mainly due to a number of  international events, such as the so-called 'war against terrorism' in Afghanistan, the Iraq War, the issue of blasphemous cartoons being published by a Danish newspaper and others. Such issues abroad have added misery to the lives of innocent Christians in Pakistan; often they have been called as “American jasoos”, meaning American agents. It is unfortunate that many people in Pakistan have adopted the failed logic of religious extremists and groups who demand that their followers should mistreat religious minorities as a sign of their solidarity with the Muslim brotherhood. It is reported that to-date there have been 500 people charged with blasphemy in Pakistan and majority on the basis of false accusations.

Now that we know the dismal state of inter-religious relations in Pakistan, it is important to recall when and where the nation got derailed from the path identified by the father of the nation, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. In his famous address to the Constituent Assembly on August 11, 1947, Jinnah wished for an inclusive and impartial government, religious freedom, rule of law and equality for all. Pakistan has been an Islamic republic since 1952 but at the national-level the values of secularism were practiced for many years after the independence in 1947.

Unfortunately, the country couldn’t inherit all the values advocated by Jinnah because he could not play his crucial role towards framing the state’s constitution, as he died in 1948. But, during his lifetime, Jinnah was able to appeal on the basis of Islam for religious pluralism in Pakistan.

Reactions from Islamic groups and some prominent scholars were not surprising, as they all demanded Pakistan to be declared as an Islamic state; that is,  a homeland for Muslims. Islamic parties lobbied for the Islamization of the state, but two successive constitutions passed in 1956 and 1962 had avoided any pressure from such groups and followed Jinnah’s vision of secularism in Pakistan.

After the death of Jinnah, some governments, in order to secure their own survival, relied on the support of Islamists and consequently “Islam” emerged as the raison d'être of the state. However, the more the state became Islamic the more religious minorities suffered in Pakistan. The situation got worse with the implementation of the Blasphemy laws in the country by the  dictator General Zia ul Haq in the 1980s. Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are considered as the strictest among countries with a Muslim majority. The provisions of laws forbid, among others, defaming of the Qur’an and Prophet Muhammad. Punishments include imprisonment for life , fines and even the death penalty.

Thus far religious minorities in Pakistan have demanded the implementation of Jinnah’s vision in letter and spirit. In 2007, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Jinnah’s 11th August speech, religious minorities, including Christians, Hindus and Sikhs gathered at the Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore to recall the secularism being promoted by Jinnah. It is important to mention that Jinnah was clear on separating religion from the affairs of the state, which is clear from what he believed in: “You are free to go to your temple; you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the state”.

In response to national and international demands from the civil society and other groups, the Musharraf government in 2000 attempted to amend blasphemy laws but all the efforts went in vain, due to the opposition coming from the conservative clerics.

Now, after the judgment on Aasia Bibi’s case, once again civil society groups have joined hands for a collective effort to abolish blasphemy laws. Will it be enough? I have doubts, because the country needs sustainable solutions to curb the influence of religious extremism, and one way to deal with that is to provide quality education at all levels, and to everyone. Recently, there has been a scheme of providing free education to school-going children, but more effort is required to ensure that the contents taught at schools are promoting inter-religious harmony. In the meantime, a lot more is needed to protect minorities against the cruelties of blasphemy laws, but most of all, the country needs appropriate policies to ensure equal opportunities for all citizens irrespective of their religion.

Zahid Shahab Ahmed, Pakistan Local Correspondent. 7 December 2010