Religious minorities seek promises of protection as general election nears

    As Pakistan gears up for general elections on February 8, the country’s religious minorities, including Christians, have launched a countrywide community engagement campaign as part of efforts to draw the attention of the mainstream political parties toward the challenges facing the minority communities.

    The campaign titled “Main Bhi Pakistan Hoon or I am also Pakistan” is a joint effort of a consortium of minority rights groups from the platform of Minority Forum Pakistan to raise public awareness on minority issues and to remind political parties of their promises to address these issues.

    Peter Jacob, the Catholic executive director of the Lahore-based research and advocacy group Center for Social Justice, emphasised the need for a “soft revolution through reforms” as opposed to rigid revolutions that weaken institutions and political systems.

    “This approach is instrumental in strengthening accountability, institutions, and democracy,” he told Christian Daily International.

    Jacob said the Forum has launched a widespread community engagement campaign by putting up banners in minority settlements in major cities and localities, holding community-level meetings, advocating with election contestants, and organising district-level seminars to ensure that minority voices are heard and represented in Pakistan’s political landscape.

    The Forum has highlighted five points in its campaign.

    These include criminalising forced conversions, strengthening the laws to end forced marriages of underage minority girls, removing Islamic content from the curriculum, establishing a statutory minorities rights commission, including Jinnah’s public address of August 11, 1947, in the curricula and Constitution of Pakistan, and the implementation of Supreme Court Justice Tassaduq Hussain Jillani’s landmark judgement of June 2014.

    Addressing the constituent assembly of the newly-found Pakistan, the nation’s founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah spoke of an inclusive and impartial government, religious freedom, rule of law, and equality for all citizens irrespective of their religion, caste or creed. Christian groups have repeatedly called for the inclusion of the speech in the school curriculum and the Constitution of Pakistan to promote pluralism and religious tolerance in Pakistani society.

    Supreme Court’s former chief justice Tassaduq Hussain Jillani, in his landmark 2014 judgement, had directed the government to develop a framework for the protection of minorities. One of the recommendations in the verdict was also the creation of a national council to oversee the matters of minorities.

    Jacob said that public representatives required public opinion and support to address human rights challenges effectively.

    “Civil society is responsible for shaping public opinion. Moreover, we believe we should focus on achieving whatever maximum we can in this election and then gradually moving on to the other issues,” he said.

    He added that the Forum advocacy’s efforts had resulted in the incorporation of its four demands in the election manifesto of the mainstream Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P).

    “This a great success and we hope that the other parties will also follow suit and add these demands in their election manifestoes,” he said.

    Commenting on the civil society’s initiative, Dr Tariq Javed Tariq, a Christian nominee for the National Assembly from the platform of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) said that he supported the Forum’s campaign.

    “Minority voices are often snubbed in parliament and even within their respective parties therefore support from the civil society is imperative to highlight the issues and advocate for their redressal,” he told Christian Daily International.

    It wouldn’t be wrong to say that the civil society strengthens the minority voices in legislatures, he added.

    Ejaz Alam Augustine, a former Christian minister for human rights and minorities affairs in Punjab province, expressed similar views but said that effective lobbying with progressive Muslim political representatives could help in bringing about the much-needed relief for minority communities.

    “We need the support of mainstream political parties to legislate on sensitive issues like the misuse of the blasphemy laws and forced religious conversion of minority girls,” he told Christian Daily International.

    He added that community engagement campaigns were also necessary to raise political awareness in minority communities, especially Christians.

    In January 2023, Jacob’s Centre for Social Justice conducted an analysis of manifestos of seven mainstream political parties, promises made and parties’ performances concerning the protection of minorities based on empirical evidence from the elections held in 2008, 2013, and 2018.

    The study revealed that the political parties found it challenging to address the core issues of religious freedom and equality among citizens in the context of rising religious intolerance.

    It also noted that there was a lack of consistency in the pledges and a lack of follow-up on them. Some of the pledges were common to all the parties’ manifestos, including minority representation in Evacuee Trust Property Board, establishing a statutory Minority Commission, criminalising forced conversions, reviewing curriculum, implementing job quotas and reviewing discriminatory laws. Distinct pledges such as introducing an education quota, preventing misuse of the blasphemy laws, representation of minority women in legislative assemblies, and introduction of constitutional reforms, showed that political parties in Pakistan could only dare to dream, the report stated.

    Christians account for only 1.59 percent of the total population of Pakistan as per the 2023 national census.

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