Pakistani court ruling that aims to identify religious minorities provokes fear

PAL130823AA001LAHORE, Pakistan (RNS) – A recent court verdict in Pakistan has made a declaration of faith compulsory for citizens before joining the civil services, military and judiciary.

The move has scared the already beleaguered religious minorities in the South Asian country.

“Already it is difficult for us as minorities to retain our government jobs. With this court judgment we can forget whatever normalcy we had in our lives,” said Ejaz Mall, 34, a Christian government employee in Lahore. “Many people will face socioeconomic exclusion if the order is implemented.”

In its ruling, the Islamabad High Court noted that citizens should be easily identifiable by their faith and that applicants for public offices should declare their beliefs before being considered for public employment. The court also directed that religion should be mentioned on birth certificates, identity cards, voters’ lists and passports and that citizens must take an oath that the Prophet Muhammad is God's only Prophet, a belief not held by most of Pakistan's minority groups.

Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui said in the ruling it was “alarming that one of the minorities was often mistaken for being Muslims” due to their names and general attire.

The court’s ruling outraged human rights activists who feared that it would blackball minorities and lead to more persecution.

The independent, non-profit Human Rights Commission of Pakistan called on the government to appeal the decision immediately.

“It is essential that the government acts in aid of its minority citizens by appealing this ruling,” said Commission Chairperson Mehdi Hasan. “Forums for justice such as the Islamabad court should play their due role in safeguarding the fundamental rights of the most vulnerable sections of society.”

The ruling is the latest attempt by officials to distinguish between religions in the country. In 1992, lawmakers proposed including religion on identity cards, but they dropped the idea when protests erupted among the Christian community.

The second-largest religious minority in Pakistan, Christians comprise less than two percent of the populations. Hindus are also around 2 percent.

Non-Muslims in Pakistan for decades have faced discriminatory laws, violence and prejudice in the country. Earlier this year, the U.S. State Department placed Pakistan on a Special Watch List for severe violations of religious freedom and the abuse of Hindus, Christians, Ahmadis, Sikhs and other minorities.

Meanwhile, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom in its annual report noted that, during the past year, the Pakistani government continued to perpetrate and tolerate systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations. Religiously discriminatory constitutional provisions and legislation, such as the country’s blasphemy and anti-Ahmadiyya laws, continue to result in prosecutions and imprisonments, the report said.

“Instead of adopting such policies, there is a need for the government to promote harmony,” said Nasir Saeed director of the Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement, a Lahore-based group that advocates for religious minorities in Pakistan. “Minorities who are living under threat and are already fleeing the country, need to be assured of security, protection and equality.”

The judgment is being seen as a big victory for hardline clerics who have sought to identify Ahmadis and other minority religious groups working in government offices. Ahmadis consider themselves to belong to an Islamic sect but many mainstream Muslims consider them to be heretics.

The campaign against Ahmadis has systematically gained momentum in the run up to the general election slated for July.

Last December, lawmaker Muhammad Safdar Awan called for a ban on Ahmadis from joining the armed forces. Safdar is the son-in-law of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

“These people [Ahmadis] are a threat to this country, its constitution and ideology. I want to bring a resolution to ban the recruitment of Qadianis [Ahmadi Muslims] in the armed forces of Pakistan,” Safdar said at the time. “A person who doesn’t believe in the jihad in the path of Allah, that person cannot be a part of our pious army.”

Pakistani culture dictates that Ahmadis refrain from calling themselves Muslims or use Islamic symbols in their religious practices.

“In 2016 my husband Qamar ul Zia, was stabbed to death outside our house in broad daylight, his crime, he was an Ahmadi,” said Ruby Tabbasum, 32, an Ahmadi mother of two from the northeastern city of Rabwah.

Her husband Zia was hounded for years by Islamists for supposed offenses like putting up the inscriptions like ‘Muhammad Ali’, the name of his father, on his house gate or “Mashallah,” or “God is willing,” on his mobile shop window. After a few assaults, a group armed with knives killed him as he was bringing his children back from school.

“I fear for my children. They know what happened to their father. They also know that they are not accepted in this society,” said Tabbasum. “We left our home after the killing because the children were teased in the school for being Ahmadis.”

Other minorities say that now, they feel as if they have a larger target on their back.

“Why should my religion be a business of the state? If my religion is mentioned on the identity card that makes me even more vulnerable as a minority,” said Asher Daniel, 19, a university student in Lahore and a Christian. “Now even getting a parking or red-light ticket for me will become dangerous. When I show my identity card it will have my religion on it.”

A version of this story can be found in Religion News Service. 

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