LAHORE – A Pakistani official announced this week a new “Minorities Empowerment Package” and the creation of a task force to ensure the rights of religious minorities in the province of Punjab.
According to the newspaper Dawn, Punjab Minister for Human Rights and Minority Affairs Ijaz Augustine said the package will include new legislation and implement existing laws to assist religious minority communities.
A newly formed task force will be composed of professionals in human rights, law, and academics from a variety of religious communities, with the purpose of monitoring the implementation of human rights policies.
Augustine made the announcement at the Alhamra Arts Council with the Christian Care Foundation, coinciding with Human Rights Day on Dec. 10. The ceremony included the distribution of certificates for activists and employees of the human rights department.
The empowerment package will implement religious minority quotas in jobs, education, and housing. It also looks to establish a sentence remission system and skill development training. The money will be taken from a Minority Development Fund worth more than $3 million.
“We are also focusing on skills development and have kept aside nearly $180,000 for scholarships. We are also working on development and housing schemes specifically for the minority community,” said Augustine, according to Dawn.
The minister said an action plan, drafted by the provincial Task Force on Human Rights, will aim to carry out the goals of the Punjab Human Rights Policy 2018.
“We have also established a web-based Complaint Management System designed by the Punjab Information Technology Board for effective communication and resolution of human rights issues,” he said.
A commission to oversee equality of religious freedom has been called for in the past. The Pakistani Supreme Court ordered the creation of a National Council for Minorities in 2014, but it was subsequently ignored by past governments.
The Pakistani constitution affirms Islam as the state religion, but articles in the document prohibit discrimination and aim to protect religious freedom of minorities.
In practice, however, “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.
The U.S. State Department this week declared Pakistan as one of 10 “countries of particular concern” when it comes to religious freedom. The designation allows for further actions, including economic sanctions, by the United States.
In July during his presidential campaign, the Pakistani President Imran Kahn said he supported laws imposing strict penalties for blasphemy – including desecration of the Koran or insulting Muhammad.
While no one has been formally executed for the crime of blasphemy in Pakistan, mob killings have followed public accusations of blasphemy.
Servant of God Shahbaz Bhatti was Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs and the only Christian member of Pakistan’s cabinet. He was killed by the Taliban in 2011 after showing support for Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman who in 2010 was sentenced to death for blasphemy. She was acquitted in October 2018, but her life is still in danger, as the ruling is under government review as part of a deal to appease groups that were leading riots in the streets.