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Pakistan: a country for minorities? By Nasir Saeed

Not long ago, we heard Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's speech at the inauguration of a water filtration plant at Katas Raj temple complex. He stated that the day is not far when Pakistan will be recognised as a "minorities-friendly country", and that people of all religions should have equal rights in Pakistan. Mr Sharif made Islamic references to stress that it was part of the faith to treat minorities equally.

He repeated similar sentiments when he later went to the Jamia Naeema seminary in Lahore where he asked the ulema to help create a new national narrative that rejects terrorism. The prime minister seems sincere, but asking religious leaders for a new national narrative is beyond my comprehension. Weren't they the ones who egregiously criticised the prime minister when in 2015 he resolutely said that the nation's future lied in a liberal and democratic Pakistan?

At the recent Hindu festival of Holi, the prime minister again said that Pakistan was made to end discrimination in the name of religion. He quoted Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah's historic 11th August speech, which was supposed to be the preamble of the constitution of Pakistan, instead of the divisive objective resolution adopted as the preamble soon after Jinnah's death. This denial of the Quaid's vision for Pakistan was also the beginning of the perpetual bigotry against religious minorities, who had equally supported the struggle to achieve Pakistan but are now living as second-class citizens of the country.

All these statements by the prime minister can be considered as a reliable indication of his vision for a better Pakistan. Perhaps it could be said that Sharif has begun the journey towards a progressive and enlightened country, as envisioned by the founder of Pakistan. However, it is a long, tiring, and thorny journey, which can make him unpopular among the Islamists. Though military operations like Zarb-e-Azb and Radd-ul-Fasaad are vital to combat terrorism, something needs to be done also about the impending menace of growing religious intolerance, hatred and extremism, which is devouring our country from the inside.

The state's policies need to change along with the public mindset. We need to change as a nation. It may take several decades, even centuries, but we have to start from somewhere.

The recent news about Deputy District Prosecutor Syed Anees Shah asking Christians facing trial in the Youhanabad lynching case to renounce their faith and convert to Islam in exchange for their acquittal, has come across as a disappointment. Shah's act has raised several questions about the government's policies and our judicial system. These are defining moments for the prime minister's vision, and this is the mindset that needs to be defeated.

Allow me to also share the story of my friend S William, who used to work as a stenotypist in Ghee Corporation of Pakistan (GCP).He was not allowed to use utensils available at the workplace and was asked to keep his own cup and saucer in his desk drawer. The treatment of minority workers in the country is still almost the same. Girls from minority communities are often asked to convert to Islam, and sometimes they are even harassed for the purpose. This is something that can be easily overcome by the government by issuing directives banning religious discussion and proselytising at workplaces.

There is no doubt that minorities are suffering in Pakistan for decades. The government, politicians, and even the judiciary all are aware of the situation, but their concerns are hardly addressed.

Earlier this year, the National Assembly passed an important bill titled, "The Criminal Laws (Amendment) Act 2016".The bill is aimed at strengthening the criminal justice system and curbing sectarianism and persecution of minorities in the country, but I see no change. Last year, the Sindh provincial assembly had passed a law criminalising forced conversion. Sadly, the bill was rejected by the late governor, Justice Saeeduzzaman Siddiqui, following protests by various Islamic groups.

The misuse of the blasphemy laws against minorities is another important issue. Despite acknowledging that the law is being used as an excuse to attack churches, burn Christian town and villages, and even burn innocent people alive, politicians have failed to start a meaningful debate on this issue in the parliament.

In 2014, the Supreme Court had ordered the establishment of a task force for protection of minorities as well as a national commission for minority rights. The order has yet to be implemented. National-level bodies with similar mandates have been operating for decades in some other countries of our region, like India and Singapore.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and several other international organisations and countries consider Pakistan a dangerous country for minorities. The world has changed. Western countries have special programmes to integrate and encourage their minorities, but we haven't started any such programmes yet.

We need a big paradigm shift as a nation.

The prime minister's concerns are timely and appropriate, but his vision of Pakistan as a minority-friendly country will remain a distant dream unless we change as a nation.

The writer is a freelance columnist

Courtesy: Daily Times