The response of the government of Pakistan to persistent sectarian and religiously motivated violence in Pakistan continues to be inadequate. In addition, official government policies, such as the anti-Ahmadi and blasphemy laws, frequently result in imprisonment and other violations of freedom of religion or belief. The Commission continues to recommend that Pakistan be designated a "country of particular concern," or CPC. To date, the State Department has not designated Pakistan a CPC.

Successive governments have severely violated religious freedom in Pakistan. Discriminatory legislation has fostered an atmosphere of religious intolerance and eroded the social and legal status of religious minorities. Government officials provide fewer protections from societal violence to non-Muslims than to members of the majority Sunni Muslim community. Perpetrators of attacks on minorities are seldom brought to justice. Belated efforts to curb extremism through reform of Pakistan's thousands of Islamic religious schools appear to have had little effect thus far. Many of these schools continue to provide ideological training and motivation to those who take part in violence targeting religious minorities in Pakistan and abroad.

Sectarian and religiously-motivated violence, much of it committed against Shi'a Muslims by Sunni militants, is chronic in Pakistan. Religious minorities such as Ahmadis and Christians have also been targeted by Sunni extremist groups. Attacks on Shi'a worship services in February and July 2003 produced multiple fatalities; the July attack alone resulted in over 50 deaths. In October 2003, gunmen fired on a bus carrying Shi'a Muslims, killing at least five, and in March 2004, armed men opened fire on Shi'a worshippers during a religious procession commemorating Al-Shura in the town of Quetta, leaving 45 dead and 160 wounded. In the last two years, there has been an upsurge in anti-Christian violence, including fatal attacks on churches and other Christian institutions. In September 2002, armed men killed seven people on the premises of a Christian charitable organization; in December, three children were killed and 14 injured in a grenade attack on a Christian church in Chianwala village in Sialkot; and in January 2004, a church compound that includes a Christian school for girls was bombed. Police protection appears ineffective, and no one has yet been successfully prosecuted for these crimes. Perpetrators of attacks on minorities are seldom brought to justice. The case of the brutal murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl in early 2002, whose Jewish background was highlighted in a video of his decapitation by his Islamic extremist killers, is not yet fully resolved.

Ahmadis, who number 3-4 million in Pakistan, are prevented by law from engaging in the full practice of their faith. The Constitution of Pakistan declares members of the Ahmadi religious community to be "non-Muslims," despite their insistence to the contrary. Barred by law from "posing" as Muslims, Ahmadis may not call their places of worship "mosques," worship in non-Ahmadi mosques or public prayer rooms (otherwise open to all Muslims), perform the Muslim call to prayer, use the traditional Islamic greeting in public, publicly quote from the Quran, or display the basic affirmation of the Muslim faith. These acts are punishable by imprisonment of up to three years. It is also illegal for Ahmadis to preach in public, to seek converts, or to produce, publish, and disseminate their religious materials. These acts are also punishable by imprisonment of up to three years. Ahmadis have been arrested and imprisoned for all of the above acts, and they are reportedly subject to ill treatment from prison authorities and fellow prisoners. Because they are required to register to vote as non-Muslims, a policy that was reaffirmed by Pakistani government officials in February 2004, Ahmadis who refuse to disavow their claim to being Muslims are effectively disenfranchised. There is no indication that the current government intends, or has even seriously considered, changes to the anti-Ahmadi laws.

Prescribed penalties for blasphemy include death for whoever "defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad" and life imprisonment for whoever "willfully defiles, damages, or desecrates a copy of the holy Quran." Blasphemy allegations, which are often false, result in lengthy detention of and sometimes violence against Christians, Ahmadis, and members of other religious minorities, as well as Muslims on account of their religious beliefs. The negative impact of the blasphemy laws is further compounded by the lack of due process involved in these proceedings. In addition, during blasphemy trials, Islamic militants often pack the courtroom and make public threats about the consequences of an acquittal. Such threats have proven credible, as they have sometimes been followed by actual violence. Although no one has yet been executed by the state under the blasphemy laws, some persons have been sentenced to death. Several accused under the blasphemy laws have been attacked, even killed, by vigilantes, including while in police custody; those who escape official punishment or vigilante attack are sometimes forced to flee the country. Others have died in police custody under allegedly suspicious circumstances. Following an abortive attempt in 2000 at introducing procedural reforms, the government of President Pervaiz Musharraf has made no further effort to reform, much less repeal, the blasphemy laws.

Pakistan's Hudood Ordinances, Islamic decrees introduced in 1979 and enforced alongside the country's secular legal system, provide for harsh punishments such as amputation and death by stoning for violations of Islamic law. Although these extreme corporal punishments have not been carried out in practice due to high evidentiary standards, lesser punishments such as jail terms or fines have been imposed. Rape victims run a high risk of being charged with adultery, for which death by stoning remains a possible sentence. In October 2003, the National Commission on the Status of Women in Pakistan issued a report on the Hudood Ordinances that stated that as many as 88 percent of women prisoners, many of them rape victims, are serving time in prison for violating these decrees, which make extramarital sex a crime and adultery a state offense. The Hudood laws apply to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

The work of the Commission has been instrumental in bringing about breakthroughs on several religious freedom issues in Pakistan. The Commission's May 2001 report on Pakistan played a key role in highlighting to U.S. and Pakistan government officials the un-democratic nature of the Pakistani separate electorate system for religious minorities. In January 2002, the Pakistan government abolished the system of separate electorates. The requirement for voters to identify themselves as Muslims or non-Muslims, however, continues to disenfranchise many Ahmadis. The Commission also pushed for action against militant religious extremist groups and religious schools that promote violence in Pakistan. This issue came to the forefront of U.S. policy only after the events of September 11, 2001, and the United States responded by urging the Pakistani government to curtail the repressive activities of extremist groups and schools, and authorized funding for education reform in Pakistan.

In an April 2003 letter to President Bush, the Commission outlined its concern that extremists could portray U.S. military action against Iraq as part of an alleged U.S. attack on Islam, and that retribution would be sought against Christians, Jews, and others in Pakistan and throughout the Islamic world, as well as in the West. In advance of a scheduled June 2003 meeting with Pakistani President Musharraf, the Commission wrote to President Bush again to ask that he raise these concerns during his meeting. In May 2003, the Commission hosted a visit to the United States by Mr. Shahbaz Bhatti, President of the All-Pakistan Minorities Alliance and an advocate for religious freedom in Pakistan.

In addition to recommending that Pakistan be designated a CPC, the Commission has recommended that the U.S. government should:

  • take the position that the existence and enforcement of laws targeting Ahmadis that effectively criminalize the public practice of their faith violate the right to freedom of religion guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights;
  • urge the government of Pakistan to implement procedural changes to the blasphemy laws that will reduce and ultimately eliminate their abuse;
  • urge the government of Pakistan to take effective steps to prevent sectarian violence and punish its perpetrators, including disarming militant groups and any religious schools that provide weapons training; and
  • support, in conjunction with other donors: (a) improvements in the public education system; (b) judicial reform and law enforcement training; (c) legal advocacy to protect the right to freedom of religion; and (d) educational programs in religious tolerance.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.