Human Rights Without Frontiers International – Pakistan PM premature in saying country will soon be ‘minority-friendly’

World Watch Monitor, 31 December 2016. Pakistan’s Prime Minister has said “the day is not far off when Pakistan will internationally be known as a minority-friendly country”.

Meanwhile, a Senate Committee has been set up to debate how “to prevent the country’s blasphemy laws being applied unfairly, despite opposition from religious conservatives”.

It has unearthed a 24-year-old report, which contains proposals for modifications, and Senator Farhat Ullah Babar says this would be the first time ever that a parliamentary body is to consider a formal proposal on how to prevent the misuse of the blasphemy laws.

Despite this, the Finance Minister on 28 Jan re-iterated that the blasphemy law could never be changed, saying: “Pakistan was the only country whose foundation was laid on Islam.”

And the same party that announced the new committee, the Pakistan People’s Party, has at the last minute withdrawn its Minority Protection Bill, due to come into force in the south-eastern province of Sindh, which borders India and so has many Hindus.

The bill, which prohibited forced religious conversions or even wilful conversions for those under the age of 18, had been passed in November, but was followed by protests by Islamic political parties. Police protection had to be provided for the parliamentarians who worked on the bill.

In October, the National Assembly had adopted a resolution, presented by Hindu parliamentarian Lal Chand Malhi, “urging the government to take necessary steps to stop forced religious conversions and marriages of women belonging to minorities”.

Hindus in Sindh have long decried many of their young girls being forcibly converted to Islam. (The abduction of Hindu girl, Rinkle Kumari in 2012 became international news, though the apex court of Pakistan ruled that she had not been forced to convert).

After the PPP backtracked on its own bill, Hindu parliamentarian Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, of the ruling PML-N party, told World Watch Monitor that the PPP President had “caved in to religious elements” after meeting with the head of Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamic political party.

“The Hindu community has been further made vulnerable by this move and its consequences will be devastating,” he added. The bill had passed unanimously and needed only ceremonial approval by the governor.

Christians in Pakistan are closely watching developments in Sindh for the implications for them in Punjab and elsewhere. That’s because the Interior Minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, has recently said that any belief that religious minorities in Pakistan are suffering because of the blasphemy laws is unfounded.

He explained to the Senate House that data from Sindh proved that, of 129 cases of blasphemy registered in total, 99 cases were registered against Muslims. This meant that 76% of the total convictions were against Muslims.

In response to a question by PPP parliamentarian Beelum Hasnain, Mr. Khan said: “The facts and figures reveal that, in most blasphemy cases, the accused were Muslims. They point towards the fact that religious minorities are not being embroiled in blasphemy cases more than Muslims.”

However, his statement does not take into account the fact that religious minorities are disproportionately accused of blasphemy: some say 15% are Christians, when they only form around 2% of the population, and more Christians live in Punjab than any other province.

And in Punjab, 49 of those accused of blasphemy since 1990 have so far been killed outside the judicial process, according to the Centre for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad.

External analysts are cautious about the realistic prospects of the blasphemy law being reviewed. Thomas Muller, an analyst for World Watch Research, notes: “There have been countless efforts to amend Pakistan’s blasphemy laws or at least to limit their devastating consequences, which particularly affect the country’s religious minorities.

But until now, radical groups have always proved stronger, at times even killing politicians they deemed too outspoken. It remains to be seen whether these commendable political initiatives will survive the opposition, most likely violent, which can be expected from the ranks of the radical Islamic groups in the country.”

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