As Pakistanis marked the birthday of Prophet Muhammad on Monday, thousands of religious fanatics attacked a mosque belonging to the minority Ahmadi sect. In what appears to be a well-coordinated attack, the hardliners besieged the Ahmadi place of worship in Chakwal, set the mosque furniture on fire, and wounded several people inside the building. According to Mahmood Javed Bhatti, a local police official, armed men also opened fire on Ahmadis and clashed with security forces.
"A mob attacked the worship place, threw stones and shot gunfire. Police could not stop them because of weak deployment," Saleemuddin, a spokesman for the Ahmadi community in Pakistan, told the Reuters news agency.
The spokesman said the mosque was built by the community in 1860 and has been in use since then.
Officials say the mob of around 2,000 people likely attacked the mosque because they suspected the worshippers were commemorating the birthday of Islam's prophet Muhammad.
Ahmadis, who believe the Messiah Ghulam Ahmad lived after Muhammad, insist they are Muslim and demand as much right to practice their faith in Pakistan as other people. Declared non-Muslims in 1974, Ahmadis face both legal and social discrimination in the Islamic country, and the attacks on their properties have increased manifold in the past decade.
The Monday attack comes just a week after Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif renamed a university center for physicist Abdus Salam, the country's first Nobel laureate, after more than 30 years of disowning his achievements as Salam belonged to the Ahmadi sect. The South Asian country's hardline Islamic groups slammed the renaming of the physics center and demand the premier retracts his decision.
Pakistani activists say that religious extremism and intolerance are no longer isolated phenomena in the Islamic country.
The Islamization of Pakistan, which started during the former Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto's government in the 1970s, culminated in the 1980s under the military dictator General Zia ul-Haq's Islamist regime. It was during Haq's oppressive rule when Ahmadis (also known as Qadianis in Pakistan) were banned from calling themselves Muslim and building their mosques in the Islamic Republic. Their places of worship were shut down or desecrated by Islamists.
Baseer Naveed, a senior researcher at the Asian Human Rights Commission, says that Ahmadis continue to be persecuted and attacked in Pakistan with the full backing of the state.
"The government wants to appease Muslim fundamentalists and right wing parties. We see that the Pakistani state continues with its policy of hatred towards religious minorities, which embolden fundamentalists," Naveed told DW.
However, Amin Mughal, a scholar based in London, believes the issue is more political than religious.
"Ahmadis were once a relatively strong group within the Pakistani establishment. The dominant Sunni groups felt threatened by them and axed them out of the state affairs," Mughal told DW.
Pakistan has witnessed an unprecedented surge in Islamic extremism and religious fanaticism in the past decade. Islamist groups, including the Taliban, have repeatedly targeted religious minorities in the country to impose their strict Shariah law on people.
Asad Butt of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan told DW that intolerance was definitely growing in Pakistan.
"There was no such issue prior to the 1980s, but when General Zia ul-Haq came to power, he Islamized everything and mixed religion and politics," Butt underlined.
But how and when did Pakistanis become so intolerant towards other religions and their followers?
"The days are gone when we said it was a small group of religious extremists, xenophobes, hate-mongers and bigots who commit such crimes," Karachi-based journalist Mohsin Sayeed told DW. "Now the venom has spread to the whole of Pakistani society," he added.
Beyond South Asia
Pakistan is not the only Muslim-majority country where Ahmadis face systematic persecution. In South Asia, Bangladeshi Ahmadis are also discriminated against, whereas the situation is direr in Southeast Asian Muslim nations, particularly in Indonesia.
Most of Indonesia's over 200 million Muslims are Sunnis. There are an estimated 100,000 Shiites and 400,000 Ahmadis who were declared "deviant" by Indonesia's top Islamic body in 2008.
According to various polls, over 40 percent of those surveyed in Indonesia would not want Shiites or members of the Ahmadi community living in their neighborhood in comparison to 15.1 percent who said they did not want Christians or Hindus as their neighbors.
Ahmadi leaders in Indonesia complain that members of the community have been intimidated and terrorized since 2005 and that their prayers and activities have been banned in many districts.
An especially shocking incident happened in February 2011 when 20 Ahmadis were attacked on the Java peninsula by about 1,500 radicals. Three members died and five were severely injured.
Moreover, people who are discriminated against on religious grounds do not seem to be able to turn to the courts for help.