How are religious minorities faring in Pakistan? | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 03.10.2012
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How are religious minorities faring in Pakistan?

Extremist Islamist groups in Pakistan are said to hold more sway in society than the government; they are believed to be behind the growing persecution of religious minorities.

Right now, things are calm in the poor neighborhoods of Pakistani cities. Few signs remain that just a few weeks ago there were violent protests over an film made in the US considered to be anti-Islamic. One resident of a suburb of Islamabad, Amin Nasir, however, recalls being so afraid that he fled the area with his family. It was the day that rumors were making the rounds that a neighbor, 14-year-old girl named Rimsha had allegedly burned pages containing verses from the Koran. She was later arrested and then released on bail until her hearing.

Christians, of which there are a few hundred in the neighborhood, were struck with mortal fear when they heard the accusations.

Pakistani Christians carry crosses during a protest against an Islamic cleric who had accused a Christian girl Rimsha of blasphmy, in Hyderabad, Pakistan, 02 September 2012. Photo: EPA/NADEEM KHAWER

Pakistani Christians protested the arrest of Rimsha

"Around midnight an announcement came over the loudspeaker at the mosque: Leave the area or we will burn your houses down," another local resident said.

Amin Nasir did not hesitate. He packed a few things and fled with his four children and his wife to Gojra, his hometown. Gojra - the town which a little over three years ago became a hot spot when rumors of a Koran desecration spurred a mob of masked men to torch dozens of homes belonging to Christians along with a church.

"I saw it with my own eyes at the time - everything. I saw how the houses in Gojra burned," he said.

Religious minorities under pressure

That was the first time that Amin Nasir fled; that time it was to Islamabad. Now, he has become a refugee for a second time. It is not easy being Christian in Pakistan, notes political expert, Hasan Askari Rizvi.

Pakistani Christians chant slogans during a rally to condemn the attacks on Christians by Sunni Muslims, Saturday, Aug. 1, 2009 in Lahore, Pakistan. Photo:ddp images/AP Photo/K.M.Chaudary

Christians have rallied to condemn the attacks against them and their property

"Religious minorities are under pressure. Not from the government, but rather from these extremist Islamic groups - extremist religious leaders. And most of the time, the state is not able to protect them," Rizvi explains.

But it is not just the Christians that the extremists show intolerance toward. Even worse off are other minorities. Ahmadis, for example, are not even recognized as Muslims. Shi'ites, too, are constantly the victims of attacks, Amir Rana from Pakistan's Institute for Peace Studies points out.

"What the majority believes, and what mainly the clergy provoke, is that Ahmadis are agents of Mossad, Christians agents of the CIA and Shi'ites stand by Iran – and they see them as traitors. This is a common narrative. This reflects how the majority thinks, it reflects in our common behavior in daily life."

Religion - the last straw?

What is clear is that Pakistani society as a whole has become more religious in recent years. The mullahs have gained more influence perhaps, too, because Pakistanis, in view of all the terror, war and their devastated economy, are grasping at the last straw - religion. The most audible sign of that, says Rana, is the anger over the anti-Islam video.

A supporter of the religious party Idara Sirat-e-Mustaqeem holds a placard during a rally with some 600 other protesters against an anti-Islam film made in the U.S. mocking Prophet Mohammad, in Lahore September 23, 2012. Photo: REUTERS/Mohsin Raza

The anti-Islam video was another opportunity for mullahs to demonstrate their influence

A common view held by Pakistanis even considered to be liberal on a number of issues is that anyone who insults the Prophet deserves to die. The problem for minorities in Pakistan is that it's all too easy to point a finger at someone for allegedly defiling the Koran or vilifying Islam, since minorities are generally suspected of being traitors in disguise anyway. Pakistan's constitution still contains a dicey paragraph banning blasphemy.

"There have been complaints that these blasphemy laws are being used for dealing with other purposes - for property disputes, for business disputes, against poor Christians - especially the poor ones," Rizvi explains.

As is so often the case, religion in Pakistan, like elsewhere, is used as an excuse to push through economic or political agendas. Liberal voices in Pakistan, however, are quite certain that not much is going to change any time soon as far as the blasphemy law is concerned. Even a public comment in the past that the law should be amended or rewritten was enough to endanger life and limb. The religious hardliners are the ones dictating the debate in Pakistan - and they have the weapons.

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