There is a growing concern among US officials about the egregious religious freedom violations in Pakistan. In the recent past, lesser-Muslims (Ahmadis, Shias, and Zikris) and non-Muslims from places like Faisalabad, Sargodha, Lahore, Turbat, Karachi, Gilgit, and Dera Ismail Khan, were attacked, charged with false blasphemy, and incarcerated while churches, Ahmadi mosques, temples and Shia centers were vandalized and violently razed.
On September 5, a US State Department spokesperson expressed grave concern about recent attacks on Christian homes and churches in response to alleged Quran desecration in the Pakistani town of Jaranwala. The spokesperson reiterated that the US government supports peaceful freedom of expression as well as everyone’s right to freedom of religion and belief. He went on to say that the US government does not tolerate religiously motivated violence because violence or the threat of violence is never an acceptable form of expression. He asked Pakistani authorities to investigate the attacks on Christians.
While the Pakistani state has systematically persecuted linguistic and religious minorities for decades through constitutional provisions, this persecution has increased in recent months due to excessive military interference in state affairs. It is widely assumed that the organizations responsible for attacking Christians, Hindus, and lesser-Muslims are military allies who enjoy impunity for their actions. In places like Tharparker, Amarkot, Chitral, Parachinar, Quetta and Gilgit, the use of religiously motivated laws encourages involuntary conversion thereby altering the ethnic demographics of Shias and non-Muslims. Just a few days back, a large Sunni crowd in Gilgit-Baltistan had blocked the main road connecting to the rest of Pakistan, demanding that a local Shia mullah be charged with blasphemy. Road blockages like these frequently occur, and are liberally used by extremists as a blackmail tool to force their will and it results in a shortage of food and medicine for nearly two million locals.
Given that the Pakistani government and military openly demonstrate a lack of will and capacity to ensure the security of its citizens; tens of thousands of local Shias took to the streets in the town of Skardo, demanding the merger of their territory with India. Authorities declared an emergency afterward banning political gatherings in open spaces. With Shia-Sunni clashes looming, locals accuse the army of inciting sectarianism in order to aid Jihadi recruitment against India. Hundreds of local secular activists have been charged with terrorism and sedition in Pakistan over the last six decades for speaking out against forced religious and ethnic demographic changes, the activities of Islamic militants, and the brazen encroachment of Pakistani and Chinese companies on local lands and resources. Locals now expect the United Nations to impose sanctions on Pakistan in order to deter the country’s increasing attacks on minorities.
A large number of Pakistani Muslims regard Shias and Ahmadis as members of deviant sects of Islam, which encourages Hanafi mainstream Muslims to attack and torture them. Pakistan’s contempt for fundamental human rights is evident in its constitutional persecution of minorities. The renewed effort by the Pakistani parliament to enact laws to increase and broaden the scope of blasphemy punishment exposes the country’s deteriorating religious freedom conditions. The unchecked use of loudspeakers in public places by religious forces is a major medium of provocation for anti-Muslim mob attacks and riots. Many recent reports have highlighted sexual and gender-based violence against minor non-Muslim girls in Sindh and Punjab provinces, as well as their kidnapping and forced conversion.
Shia oppression has remained a feature of Pakistan’s religious politics, with neither the civilian or military governments willing to put an end to it. Shias are considered non-Muslims by the organizations and religious leaders on which the army relies for Jihad recruitment.
Extremists use references from the Holy Scriptures to justify Shia killings, forced conversions, denial of basic rights, and eviction from ancestral lands. Shias have become a minority in areas where they were once the majority, such as Parachinar, Chitral, and Gilgit. Shia forced conversions and killings in Pakistani cities such as Dera Ismail Khan, Jhang, Quetta, and Karachi have gone on unabated for decades, while authorities have done nothing.
In recent months, anti-Shia forces have launched rockets into Shia neighborhoods in Parachinar, injuring a large number of people. The intention was to drive Shias from their ancestral lands. During the attacks, a video emerged showing a Jihadi leader addressing a large crowd and threatening the annihilation of Shias in Parachinar.
Invoking Islamic scriptures, he called for Jihad-e-Akbar against Shias, which translates as “the Greatest of All Jihads.” He claimed that killing Shias and ridding Pakistan of them was Jihad-e-Akbar, which would be the greatest service to Islam. In his speech, he referred to Shias as the filthiest of all infidels (kafirs). He reiterated that killing Shias was Farz-e-Ain, which means the most fundamental or core of all Islamic obligations. He claimed that any Muslim who dies while attacking Shias becomes Shaheed-e-Akbar, or the most superior of Islamic martyrs, and that killing Shias opens the gates of Jannah (paradise) for Muslims. He urged his friends to continue fighting because, in his words, the Shia neighborhoods would soon be surrounded by Muslim fighters who would block the roads, leaving Shias with no way out, and Parachinar would soon be devoid of Shias.
As we remember the victims of 9-11, Pakistan and Afghanistan are once again becoming safe havens for Al-Qaida and its affiliates, endangering the safety and well-being of local religious and ethnic minorities. TTP launched an attack on Chitral a few days ago, killing and injuring several Pakistani soldiers. Chitral is home to Ismailia-Shias and Kalasha non-Muslim Animists, who account for more than 30% of the local population. It is feared that the Taliban intend to control the religious demographics of this district, which was once dominated by Ismailis. Local estimates put the Kalasha population at 2,000 or less, and their women are being targeted as a result of molestation, kidnappings, forced conversion, and marriages to Muslim men.
The international community should take concrete steps to protect Chitral’s religious minorities so that we do not end up in a situation similar to that of Iraq’s Yazidis. The Taliban have a massive fighting force and logistical support, and wiping out 2,000 people would not be difficult or time-consuming if the international community refused to intervene. Pakistan is a failed state, and the international community should intervene to ensure the survival of minorities.
Furthermore, TTP’s intrusion threatens neighboring Gilgit, where China has undertaken a number of megaprojects such as mineral extraction and dam construction. Such incidents, it is feared, will encourage China to station troops in Pakistan. Previously, China planned to station security forces in Pakistan but was unable to do so due to disagreements with the PAK government. The arrival of Chinese troops would be a huge setback for locals, who are already struggling to keep their lands and cultures safe from the Chinese developers. As we speak, we are rapidly becoming another Xinjiang or Tibet.
TTP-affiliated groups continue to target women’s rights activists in Pakistan. Many people have been killed by extremists in areas such as KPK province. Women in Pashtun tribal areas are suffering as the country descends into extremism and is taken over by Taliban-linked groups. Non-Muslim women are more vulnerable than others in this situation. They do not have access to education, religious freedom, places of worship, or health care. Minor non-Muslim girls are kidnapped, raped, and forcibly converted to Islam before being handed to elderly Muslim men as wives. The international community has failed Pakistan’s non-Muslim women.
Concerning the TTP attacks, the State Department spokesperson stated that the US shares Pakistan’s interest in combating threats to regional stability and is prepared to work with Pakistan to combat militant and terrorist groups. He stated that the US supports the Pakistani government’s efforts to combat terrorism and ensure the safety and security of its citizens in a manner that promotes the rule of law.
During the Obama and Trump administrations, Knox Thames served as a special envoy for religious minorities at the US State Department. On August 26, the Hill published his article “In Pakistan, Religious Freedom is Withering,” in which he claimed that Pakistan has the harshest blasphemy laws in the world, which has resulted in the incarceration and torture of dozens and dozens of people, many of whom were innocent. He claims that, while blasphemy poses health and safety risks to all Pakistanis, the threats to non-Muslims are particularly severe, as evidenced by the brazen ransacking of churches and Christian homes by mobs in the town of Jaranwala over false blasphemy allegations.
He claims that minorities have no hope of receiving state assistance because the authorities, as well as the country’s constitution, aid and abet the attackers. Such attacks become more common during election season, as politicians try to curry favor with extremists in order to secure a share of the conservative Muslim vote. The USCIRF 2022 report states that radical Islamists, which include armed groups, political factions, and individuals, target religious minorities with rhetoric, disinformation, or direct violence. Groups like Sipah-e-Sihaba, Jamat Islami, TLP, and JUIF enjoy widespread popularity and a sizable vote share.
Furthermore, supporting non-Muslims is not profitable for politicians because the current electoral system effectively disenfranchises all non-Muslims and the constitution only allows Muslims to nominate minority candidates.
Islamists have infiltrated so deeply into Pakistan’s political structure that Pakistani Prime Minister Sharif succumbed to pressure from the Islamist groups and signed a 12-point agreement with TLP to establish a counter-blasphemy wing within the Federal Investigation Agency and a social media filter against blasphemous content.
Following that, the Senate passed legislation mandating life in prison for insulting Prophet Muhammad’s companions, wives, and family members. The blasphemy law has since been amended to prosecute those insulting even Muslims born after Prophet Muhammad’s death just because they had the opportunity to interact with his companions or family members. Despite efforts, the international community has been unable to persuade Pakistan to end judicial apartheid against minorities. Following that, on August 16, a mob attacked the Christians of Jaranwala, burning homes, shops, and 21 churches, as well as hundreds of sacred scriptures housed in those churches.
According to Knox, the Ahmadis faced fifteen attacks on their mosques and cemeteries this year, similar to attacks on churches. The ongoing destruction of Ahmadi Muslim places of worship and graveyards is not an isolated incident, but rather a symptom of state-sanctioned repression and constitutional apartheid.
Pakistan’s government must ensure freedom of expression and movement as well as the safety of assets and livelihoods of minorities. This can be achieved by holding officials accountable for heinous chronic crimes and prosecuting them for violating the fundamental freedoms enshrined in the UN Declaration. Peace cannot return to Pakistan unless the rulers support a secular social fabric and a constitution based on mutual respect and equality for all citizens.
The US Congress must continue its bipartisan support for the protection of Pakistani non-Muslims and lesser-Muslims and become a strong voice for every minority suffering at the hands of Pakistani regimes and their religious proxies. Furthermore, the US Congress should ask President Biden to ensure that the Pakistani secular forces view the US government as an ally in fighting against systemic restrictions on cultural and religious freedoms.
The Biden administration should keep Pakistan on the list of CPCs for committing and tolerating grave violations of religious freedom and imposing systemic restrictions on non-Muslim and minority Muslim communities. International pressure should be applied through non-profit rights organizations to identify and prosecute officials responsible for violations against minorities.
Although Pakistan is on the list of CPCs, the State Department issued a national interest waiver, exempting Pakistan from the sanctions and other significant penalties that would otherwise accompany that designation. It is past time for the Biden administration to reconsider its waiver policy for Pakistan, or minorities will never have a chance at justice.
The US government should also request that the Pakistani parliament repeal all blasphemy laws immediately. According to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), blasphemy cases, as well as the type of mob violence that accompanies such accusations, remained a significant threat to religious freedom. The US Congressional Pakistan Caucus should hold a hearing soon to discuss Pakistan’s pressing issues of state-sponsored cultural genocide and religious-based apartheid.
Many analysts agree that Pakistan’s removal from the FATF grey list has emboldened the country’s extremist Muslim groups to intensify attacks on lesser-Muslims and non-Muslim minorities. In this regard, the international community should reconsider and reinstate Pakistan on the grey list.
The US government is being urged to discourage the IMF and World Bank from providing financial assistance to Pakistan because this money is being used by the Pakistani military to crush minorities, and international financial institutions have become partners in promoting ethnocide and genocide in Pakistan.
During PM Modi’s visit a few weeks ago, the White House issued a joint statement indicating cooperation between both countries to identify and designate terrorist organizations. This is an important step toward containing Pakistan-led terrorism, particularly in the districts of Kashmir controlled by Pakistan, where minority-hating terrorists hide and train.
The US government’s ambiguous stance on Kashmir, labeling it disputed and not part of India, benefits China and Pakistan far more than the people of Kashmir. It breathes new life into terrorism as the military allocates taxpayer funds for this purpose, which the country’s declining economy cannot afford. It also allows China to amass troops on the Gilgit-Baltistan border and extend support to the terrorist groups in Kashmir, further complicating and prolonging the conflict. By doing so, President Biden is offering China the long arms to enjoy easy and continuous access to the south of the Himalayas and the Arabian Sea.
It is past due for President Biden to change this policy and end China’s stranglehold on the region, or he will be remembered as the president who aided and abetted America’s most dangerous adversary.
Senge Sering is the President of Gilgit Baltistan Institute in Washington D.C.