Religious discrimination in Pakistan is a serious issue for the human rights situation in modern-day Pakistan. Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Shias, and Ahmadis among other religious minorities often face discrimination and at times are even subjected to violence. In some cases, Christian churches and Ahmadi mosques and the worshippers themselves have been attacked.
According to the 2017 census, Hindus constitute the largest religious minority in Pakistan. Christians make up the second-largest religious minority, and the Ahmadis and Sikhs are also among the notable religious minorities in Pakistan.
One of the significant issues being faced by minority communities is the abuse of the blasphemy law. The blasphemy laws consist of a group of laws, the centrepiece of which is section 295 of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), which provides penalties for blasphemy and other “offences against religion,” ranging from a fine to the death sentence. These laws have been repeatedly condemned by national and international observers as severely contradicting freedoms of expression, religion and of opinion, and are likely to be used as tools for religious persecution of minorities. In 2009, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination noted that Pakistan’s “blasphemy laws may be used in a discriminatory manner against religious minority groups.”
For the past several decades, the Pakistani authorities have continuously failed to adequately protect minorities from faith-based violence. Even when some governments made pledges to bring perpetrators of faith-based crimes to justice, these promises have remained unfulfilled with regard to crimes committed against non-Muslims. The State’s failure to fight impunity for such crimes is seen as tacit approval and has resulted in rising religious intolerance and more evident acts of discrimination and violence against minorities.
The FIDTH Organization in Pakistan revealed that the education system in Pakistan is both discriminatory in its content and the level of access to education given to members of minority groups, and has also helped fuel hatred against minorities through the proliferation of negative stereotypes in school curricula. These curricula, notably those of public schools, have been thoroughly examined by several organizations that have concluded that it is not protective of minorities. Discrimination prevails in the context of admissions to colleges and universities. Several higher education institutions implement a quota system that disadvantages non-Muslim students. For instance, at the Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, each department may only enrol a total of two non-Muslim students. Even if a non-Muslim student achieves high enough scores to be admitted to the University, they are refused admission if they fall beyond the quota, and the University will instead admit a Muslim student with a lower merit score.
The discrimination against Ahmadis is enforced through public policies limiting their access to education, professional opportunities, and basic political and civil rights. For example, when filling out the application form for a Pakistani passport, anyone who mentions his religion as Islam is asked to pledge that she or he is not an Ahmadi, or risk being charged under section 298-C of the PPC. Ahmadis are not allowed to have public places of worship and are thus confined to their homes for their religious ceremonies. The official Ahmadi newspaper, which is only allowed to circulate among paid subscribers, does not have the right to promote the Ahmadi faith, be it directly or indirectly, FIDTH reported.
In the same vein, HRW in its 2021 annual report stated that the government excluded Ahmadis from being part of a National Commission for Minorities, a new commission tasked with safeguarding the rights of the country’s minorities.
A major problem facing the Sikh community is the discriminatory jizya, a fee in exchange for being able to practice one’s faith, enjoy communal autonomy, and be entitled to Muslim protection from outside aggression. Only Sikhs, not other minorities, need to pay this fee to non-state actors [militants]. Several reports have been received of Sikhs being killed in public places for not paying this protection fee.
The 2019 Religious Minorities in Pakistan report compiled by Members of the European Parliament has stated that independent NGOs estimate every year at least 1,000 girls are forcibly converted to Islam, although the number may be probably more due to under-reporting.
During the COVID-19 pandemic in Pakistan, reports emerged that rations were being denied to minority Hindus and Christians in the coastal areas of Karachi. The Saylani Welfare Trust, carrying out the relief work, said that the aid was reserved for Muslims alone.
A Series of Targeted Attacks
Two Sikh traders, Ranjit Singh (42) and Kuljeet Singh (38), were killed on May 15, when two men arrived on a motorbike, opened fire, and killed them in front of their shops in Peshawar, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
Indian press said that this was the second incident against the minority community in Peshawar in the last eight months. In September last year, a Sikh shopkeeper, Satnam Singh, was shot dead at his dawakhana (traditional medicine shop) in Peshawar. The Islamic State’s Afghanistan affiliate, dubbed Islamic State Khorasan or ISIS-K, had claimed responsibility for the killing.
In 2018, Charanjit Singh, a prominent Sikh community member, was killed by unknown men in Peshawar. Similarly, news channel anchor Ravinder Singh was killed in 2020 in the city. In 2016, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf National Assembly member Soren Singh was also killed in Peshawar.
The Indian Express said that Sikhs in Pakistan face continuous persecution, killing and uncertainty of their future. Sikhs are shot dead simply because they are religious minorities.
Calls on the Pakistani government to amend its blasphemy law
In its 2021 country report HRW called on the Pakistani government to amend or repeal blasphemy law provisions that have provided a pretext for violence against religious minorities and have left them vulnerable to arbitrary arrest and prosecution.
The report stated among other discrimination that Members of the Ahmadiyya religious community continue to be a major target for prosecutions under blasphemy laws, as well as specific anti-Ahmadi laws.