CNA Staff, May 9, 2020 / 06:01 am (CNA).- Pakistan’s government has declined to include the Ahmadi religious group in its National Commission for Minorities, drawing attention to the group whose Muslim self-identification is rejected by many Muslims.
In a note seen by Reuters, Pakistan’s Ministry of Religious Affairs said Ahmadis should not be included in the commission “given the religious and historical sensitivity of the issue.” Pakistan’s constitution does not recognize the Ahmadis as Muslim.
However, Ahmadis consider themselves part of Islam. The movement was founded in 1889 in British-ruled India. They consider their founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad a “subordinate prophet.” Other Muslims see this as a violation of the tenet that Muhammad was the last prophet.
There are about 500,000 Ahmadis in Pakistan and up to 20 million adherents worldwide. Some observers estimate the Ahmadi population in Pakistan is higher, but persecution encourages Ahmadis to hide their identity.
Pakistan’s religious freedom record has been a matter of international concern.
The 2020 report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has said Ahmadis continue to face “severe persecution from authorities as well as societal harassment due to their beliefs.”
Both government authorities and mobs target their places of worship. In October 2019, the report said, police in Punjab partially demolished a 70-year-old Ahmadiyya mosque.
Pakistan’s National Commission for Minorities gives some status, voice, and protections to minorities in a country where over 90% of people identify as Muslim.
A Hindu has been nominated to chair the minorities commission, whose members include representatives of Christian, Kalash, Sikh, and Zoroastrian communities. Government officials and the head of Pakistan’s Council of Islamic Ideology also have commission seats.
State Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Ali Muhammad Khan, a vocal opponent of including the Ahmadis on the commission, has referred to them as agents of chaos.
“If they want to avail constitutional rights they must accept the constitution first,” he told Reuters. “The Pakistani constitution considers them non-Muslims.”
Usman Ahmad, an Ahmadi representative, told Reuters it is a “complete myth” that they did not accept the constitution. He added that many people disagree with parts of the constitution but still have rights under it.
He said his community is used to exclusion and has never accepted classification as non-Muslim.
“We’ve never joined such commissions that require us to accept our non-Muslim status,” he said.
Minister of Information Shibli Faraz has said the rights of all people were fully respected in the handling of the commission.
“Every country has the sovereign right to make judgments according to its ground realities,” he told Reuters.
Khan, the Minister for Parliamentary Affairs, had posted to Twitter, then deleted, a comment “There is only one punishment for insulting the Prophet – chopping off the head.” He said he believed in “legal procedures and court proceedings” for those accused of blasphemy. Twitter told him to delete the post, Reuters reports.
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws impose strict punishment on those who desecrate the Quran or who defame or insult Muhammad. Although the government has never executed a person under the blasphemy laws, accusations alone have inspired mob and vigilante violence.
The laws, introduced in the 1980s, are reportedly used to settle scores or to persecute religious minorities. While non-Muslims constitute only 3 percent of the Pakistani population, 14 percent of blasphemy cases have been levied against them.
Many of those accused of blasphemy are murdered, and advocates of changing the law are also targeted by violence.
The Governor of Punjab Salman Taseer was one such critic of the law who was assassinated in January 2011.
Just months later, in March 2011, Shahbaz Bhatti, the first Federal Minister For Minorities Affairs and the only Christian in Pakistan’s cabinet, was assassinated by extremists who characterized him as a blasphemer. Bhatti had criticized the law and defended Asia Bibi, a Catholic woman sentenced to death by hanging in 2010 for blasphemy.
Bibi spent nine years on death row, but left Pakistan for Canada in 2019 at the age of 53 after her death sentence was overturned in October 2018.
The verdict and her subsequent release from prison sparked protests from Islamic hardliners who support strong blasphemy laws.
In Punjab last year, a mob attacked a Christian community after a mosque broadcast over loudspeaker a claim that the Christians had insulted Islam. In another incident in Karachi, false blasphemy accusations against four Christian women prompted mob violence that forced nearly 200 Christian families to flee their homes, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said.
The situation in Pakistan has attention from some prominent Catholics.
In a Jan. 21, 2020 letter written on behalf of Philadelphia’s Pakistani Catholic community, then-Archbishop of Philadelphia Charles J. Chaput encouraged Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan to shape a culture of religious freedom
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s latest annual report said religious freedom conditions in Pakistan continued to deteriorate last year, citing “The systematic enforcement of blasphemy and anti-Ahmadiyya laws, and authorities’ failure to address forced conversions of religious minorities—including Hindus, Christians, and Sikhs—to Islam.”
The bipartisan federal commission advises the U.S. government on policy. Its report recommended that the U.S. government name Pakistan a country of particular concern for “systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.”
In December 2018, for the first time, the U.S. State Department designated Pakistan a “Country of Particular Concern.” The designation, which can trigger sanctions under U.S. law, had been recommended by the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom in 2017 and 2018.
The latest commission report recommended that Pakistan be re-designated a “Country of Particular Concern,” given “systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.”