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Asia

Commercial project threatens Pakistan's historic temple

A Hindu temple in Pakistan is under threat by the construction of a skyscraper. While the builders say the project is beneficial for Karachi's denizens, the minority Hindus see it as another assault on their faith.

For 150 years, the Shri Ratneshwar Mahadev Temple has been the center of spirituality and festivity for the Hindus living in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi. The underground temple is also known for its architectural brilliance. Each year, a grand festival at the temple attracts more than 25,000 pilgrims from all over the country.

Just a stone's throw away from this historic temple, property tycoon Malik Riaz is constructing the country's tallest building. The Bahria Town commercial plaza is going to be 853-feet tall with more than 59 floors. Recently, to ease the flow of traffic near the project, the developers have started building a flyover and an underpass.

H. K. Rajput, a Karachi-based Hindu, told DW that at the start of the skyscraper's construction in 2008, the Hindu worshipers had no idea about the threats the building would pose to the temple.

Commercial project threatens Pakistan's historic temple (Photo: DW)

Rights activists say the construction of the skyscraper never really stopped

"As the builders started to use heavy machinery to drill and dig the construction site, the statues of gods and the temple walls began to tremble. It terrified us as we feared that the temple might collapse," said the 44-year-old Rajput.

The Pakistani Hindu community has taken the matter to the court, which had earlier ordered the builders to temporarily halt the construction of the plaza. But last week, the court allowed the builders to resume the project.

Hindus make up 2.5 percent of the 174 million people living in Pakistan. The majority of them, over 90 percent, live in southern Sindh province. Rights organizations in Pakistan report widespread social and cultural discrimination against minorities.

The legal battle

The temple authorities say they have informed the Pakistan Hindu Council - a representative body of the Pakistani Hindus - about the situation. There have been several protests against the construction of the skyscraper by human rights activists. Zohra Yusuf, the chairperson of the non-governmental Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), says the construction work must stop.

But Bahria Town officials claimed they were not doing anything unlawful by constructing the gigantic building. They said the project was crucial to the "prosperity" of the city, and vowed to restart it once the legal battle was over.

Rajput is of the view that even if the temple survived the drilling and digging, the huge commercial complex will outshine the historic temple and will make it difficult for the devotees to access their place of worship.

"We are not against the development projects, but they should not be built at the cost of our temple. We hope that the court will do justice in this matter," Rajput said.

Increased threats

The threat to the Shri Ratneshwar Mahadev Temple is not the only reason why Hindus in Pakistan feel insecure in the Islamic Republic. Of late, there has been an increase in attacks on their places of worship in many parts of the southern Sindh province.

Last month, several Hindu temples were attacked in the cities of Larkana, Hyderabad and Mithi by the majority Muslim groups, who were "avenging" the alleged insult to Islam during the Hindu festival of Holi.

In December 2012, a temple and a number of Hindu homes were demolished in one the busiest areas of Karachi. Pakistani authorities said that a court order allowed some buildings to be demolished but they denied that the temple had been razed.

Ramesh Kumar Vankwani of the Pakistan Hindu Council told the media that there had been a long-running legal dispute between a builder and the Hindu residents of the area over the land. He said that the land belonged to the Hindu residents and not to the builder as claimed by the authorities.

Veteran human rights activist Abdul Hai is of the opinion that most of the time, temples and churches are attacked for commercial reasons. "Unfortunately, the government is not doing anything to protect minorities and their places of worship," he told DW.

Forced conversions of Hindus to Islam are also on the rise in Pakistan, and a number of them have sought refuge in neighboring India.

Pakistani Hindus sit next to a demolished Hindu temple in Karachi on December 2, 2012. Authorities have demolished a 50-year-old Hindu temple in southern Pakistani city of Karachi despite a stay order from a court sparking protest by the minority community, officials said (Photo: RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP/Getty Images)

Discrimination against Hindus is widespread in Pakistan

Cultural heritage

Rights activists point to the negligence of the government to look after the minorities' places of worship, many of which are historical and cultural landmarks.

"There is a mandir (temple) in the Malir area of Karachi which was a fine architectural piece of work. The statues of Hindu deities in the temple were delicately sculpted. Years ago, when the temple was attacked, people also destroyed the statues," said Peerzada Salman, a cultural critic at Dawn newspaper in Karachi. "These are not just places of worship; they are Pakistan's architectural heritage."

Salman further criticized the government for not investing in the upkeep of these sites and instead closing them down.

Experts say that there are still hundreds of temples and churches in Karachi and other parts of Pakistan which need state support. They say that the government is either too afraid of extremists and commercial lobbies or lacks the will to save these places.