– A group of advocates for religious freedom have formed a commission for the protection of minorities’ rights in Pakistan, amid growing fears of intolerance toward religious minorities in the majority-Muslim country.
Local media reported that the new commission is comprised of professionals in human rights, law, and academics from various religious communities. Its aim is to encourage federal and provincial governments to honor constitutional religious freedom rights.
The Pakistani constitution establishes Islam as the state religion, but includes articles to protect the rights of freedom of religion and religious education. It also prohibits discrimination based on religion in relation to access to public places and provision of public services.
Despite this, “the government of Pakistan has not addressed the spread of sectarian or religiously motivated intolerant speech and has not prosecuted perpetrators of violent crimes against religious minorities,” according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Human rights activist Ibn Abdur Rehman, patron-in-chief of the new commission, said the body will be committed “to upholding rights of those people treated or declared as the minorities,” but that it would be “all-inclusive in pursuing equality” in terms of religious freedom.
Chairman of the new body Peter Jacob told local media that with “rising intolerance in society, there was an urgent need of such a commission to protect minorities’ rights.” He said the Pakistani Supreme Court ordered the creation of a National Council for Minorities in June 2014, but successive governments had ignored this order.
In July, Pakistan elected Imran Kahn as it new president, a politician who has publicly supported laws imposing strict penalties for blasphemy against Islam – including desecrating a Quran or insulting Muhammad. Penalties for insulting Islam’s chief prophet include fines, prison, and even the death penalty.
Accusations of blasphemy are disproportionately leveled against religious minorities, and the laws are seen as a vehicle for religious intolerance or persecution. While Pakistan is 97 percent Muslim, 14 percent of blasphemy cases are brought against non-Muslims.
While no one has been formally executed for the crime in Pakistan, mob violence and killings have accompanied public accusations of blasphemy. This includes Servant of God Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic politician from Pakistan who was killed by the Taliban in 2011.
Bhatti, who served as Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs from 2008 until his death, was at the time the only Christian member of Pakistan’s cabinet, and said he had dedicated his life to the “struggle for human equality, social justice, religious freedom, and to uplift and empower the religious minorities’ communities,” and that he accepted the post for the sake of the “oppressed, down-trodden and marginalized.”
Bhatti had begun to receive death threats in 2009, but they increased in 2010, after he showed support for Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman who was sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010, and who remained on death row until her acquittal by Pakistan’s Supreme Court in October 2018.