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Religious persecution through systemic discrimination and economic persecution of one of the most vulnerable populations in Pakistan

By John Cosenza and John T. Pinna

Part 1 of a 2-part series. Part 2 can be found here


The Kalasha—frequently referred to as Kalash Kafirs[1]— is an isolated tribe dwelling amidst remote valleys within Hindu Kush in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province[2] of Northwest Pakistan. Due to the distinctiveness of the tribe’s mythic history, dress, religious rituals, and attitudes towards women, the Kalasha have garnered significant interest from NGOs and other international organizations concerned with the preservation of “cultural heritage” or the protection of “indigenous rights.” (Parkes 1999, 18; Hilton 2010)[3]

Despite the influx of money, interest, and support, the Kalasha continue to face significant challenges. In recent years, extremist groups from Afghanistan, saliently the Taliban, have expanded their presence in the valleys of Northwest Pakistan. The Kalasha are under “increasing danger from proselytizing Muslim militants and their hardline interpretation of Islam creeping through mainstream society.” (Conway 2011; Hilton 2010 and Walsh 2011) Frequent conflicts between “extremists” and Pakistani troops have evolved into a diffuse and protracted war spanning across the Pakistani border, with Pakistani troops now billeted in Kalasha community centers and schools. (Walsh 2011)

In this unstable and insecure environment, the Kalasha—already a targeted religious and ethnic minority in the region—have been left particularly vulnerable. In Our Women Are Free: Gender & Ethnicity in the Hindukush, anthropologist Wynne Maggi, who spent approximately two years living in the region, reports that disputes over natural resources, such as timber, escalate into acts of violence with Muslim neighbors. (Maggi 2004, 1-5) Maggi even mentions a bombing that occurred in a small Kalasha village and tragically killed a young Kalasha man. Maggi also reports that local women have come to expect the perpetration of acts of violence and even rape from non-Kalasha men. (Maggi 2004, 22) Similarly, Yasir Kalash, the manager of a hotel in Pakistan’s northwestern province, states, “they capture our lands, our pastures and our forests, and sometimes take our goats and women. We are afraid in the next few years we will be finished.” (Craig 2016)

Reports of local Muslims performing various forms of chicanery, bribes, or forcibly converting Kalashas to Islam are frequent. (Maggi 2004, 25; Naqvi 1996, 682)[4] In June of 2016, a 15-year old Kalasha girl named Rina wandered away from her village and entered a local Islamic seminary. The seminary’s cleric subsequently declared that Rina had converted to Islam. The cleric’s decision was supported by a local Islamic judge, effectively severing ties between Rina and her family. (Craig 2016) Despite the high rate of occurrence of such conversions, the act of conversion within the Kalasha community is not a casual affair. Converted Kalasha are frequently isolated from their families and cut off from participating in customary Kalasha traditions. (Gul 2016) Any who regret their conversion are prevented from returning to Kalasha society and religion by a threat notorious throughout the valleys: “Any converted Kalasha who subsequently defects from Islam will be killed.” (Maggi 2004, 26; Hilton 2010)

Kalasha experience the effects of religious intolerance and bigotry in their daily lives. Five times daily, mullahs warn against the evils of the Kalash, their voices reverberating through the valleys from the loudspeakers of an increasing number of mosques. (Sahi 2014) Neighboring Muslim villagers frequently warn the Kalasha that if they do not convert to Islam, they will go to hell. (Conway 2011) If the Kalasha leave their villages, children from neighboring villages often throw rocks at the women as they pass through. (Maggi 2004, 12) The Kalasha believe this discrimination further amplifies the high attrition rate of their community, in addition to acculturation, modernization, rural poverty, and urban emigration.

The United Nations (UN) can coordinate the efforts of NGOs, Pakistani governmental organizations, international human affairs practitioners, and the Kalasha community to confirm and enforce the rights of these unique people. The UN has declared the Kalasha have a right to practice their religion and customs in a safe environment as equal citizens of Pakistan. Furthermore, the UN has declared the Pakistani government has a responsibility to recognize and enforce the rights inherent to the Kalasha as an indigenous religious and ethnic minority, and to take an active stand against unlawful, violent, or discriminatory acts committed against them. The following analysis highlights the unique history, culture, and religion of the Kalasha people as well as egregious acts of discrimination they face daily. In the wake of the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom held from July 24th – 26th 2018, the Trump Administration has the unique opportunity to deliver on its message of advancing religious freedom as well. Indeed, we call on The Trump Administration to deliver on its new founded mission. There is an unprecedented opportunity to implement policy recommendations outlined in The Potomac Declaration to save this beautiful and unique culture from extinction.



Approximately 3,500 to 5,000 Pakistani citizens continue to self-identify as Kalasha.[5]  Though “Kalasha” is formally recognized within Pakistan only as an ethnic designation, the Kalasha community takes pride in how their unique religion, language, heritage, customs, and environmental settings are inextricable from Kalasha identity. Accordingly, the majority of self-identifying Kalasha continue to live within the narrow valleys of Bumborate (Mumuret), Rumbur (Rukmu), and Birir (Biriu). (Cacopardo 1992, 371; Di Carlo 2006, 141)[6]

The Kalasha live at high elevation amidst evergreen holly oak forests near the base of Hindu Kush valleys (Di Carlo 2006, 50; Parkes 1992, 38). The Kalasha moved their villages to this lower elevation relatively recently, as strategic defense became less of a concern for Kalasha villagers following the creation of Pakistan. (Cacopardo 1991, 317) The Kalasha continue to move between higher and lower elevations, along with their goat herds, to optimize the use of available resources.

Today, the Kalasha continue to abide by many customary methods of cultivating their land and its resources. The primary income for the majority of the Kalasha still dwelling within the valleys is derived from “mixed mountain” subsistence farming. According to Feisal Hussain Naqvi, the “farming systems can be described as arable crops mixed with fruit and forest trees and livestock.” The Kalasha women cultivate fields, planting wheat, millet, maize, and other vegetables as well as harvest fruits and walnuts from village forests. Kalasha men guard and tend to the goat herds, moving them up and down the valleys to take advantage of prime seasonal resources. (Parkes 1999, 9-11)[7] Indeed, “men’s role as primary pastoralists leads them on a seasonal transhuman migration that begins in June when they take their herds from winter stables near the villages to spring pastures at about 9,000 feet.” (Maggie 2004, 75)

Traditional forms of husbandry, agriculture, and natural resources are integrally connected to many Kalasha rituals. For example, the Kalasha hold a religious festival during the entirety of their agricultural season, beginning with the first blossoms and ending with the harvest. Goat meat, milk, and cheese are integral to such festivals, especially to Chumas, a ritual of sacrifice observed at the end of the production year. (Di Carlo 2007, 45-55) The Kalasha also celebrate their religious festivals, such as the Prun Festival, “with long-lasting and articulated songs chants, almost always accompanied by drum beat and communal dances” (Di Carlo 2007, 63), coupled with homemade wine and whiskey. Although efforts by NGOs and Pakistani governmental organizations to modernize Kalasha agricultural and herding technologies have yielded some changes, the Kalasha frequently react with suspicion and resistance. (Parkes 1999, 22)[8] Indeed, the Kalasha are more concerned with legal protection over their territories than technological advances or funds from the outside world.



Based principally on linguistic evidence, scholars currently believe the Kalasha have resided in the same valleys in Northwest Pakistan for thousands of years. It is argued their origins date back to the time of the first Indo-Aryan migration into the region in the second millennium BCE. (Cacopardo 1992, 366-371)[9] Although a lack of definitive sources prevents scholars from concluding the exact time and cause of Kalasha immigration to the valleys, their mythical and oral histories provide context into their origins. (Cacopardo 1992, 366) In fact, the fate of the Kalasha people has relied on myth just as much as, if not more than, on historical record or fact. The Kalasha community claims they are descendants of Macedonian soldiers from the armies of Alexander the Great.[10] Although discarded by scholars, this legendary claim has captured significant interest and support from Greek NGOs and tourists. Indeed, Athanasios Lerounis, leader of a Greek NGO known as Greek Teachers, quotes, “their culture is a treasure belonging not only to Pakistan but to the whole world. And we are here to support these cultural islands.” (Hilton 2010) Other Kalasha origin myths, such as descent from the Quraish tribe[11] or of an ancient migration from Tsyam,[12] have encouraged other effective ties with other organizations as well. (Cacopardo 1991, 321)

Kalasha histories trace back to a period of autonomy under leaders such as Raja Wai, Chiu, and Bulasing. (Cacopardo 1992, 367) A Persian manuscript on the history of Chitral,[13] translated into Urdu by Ghulam Murtaza in 1962, corroborates this history, narrating the defeat of a leader called Bulasing at the hand of the original Muslim founder of the state of Chitral[14] in 1320 CE. The manuscript additionally mentions Raja Wai who, according to Kalasha legend, is often named as a brother or other relative of Bulasing, placing his death in 1531 CE. (Cacopardo 1992, 367) Although the dates in this and other Persian manuscripts are doubtful, Kalasha oral traditions confirm the general timeframe, placing their initial defeat at the hands of Chitrali kings roughly 15 generations back. Allowing for variation of lifespans, their defeat would roughly have taken place sometime between the 14th and 16th centuries. (Cacopardo 1992, 367)

After their defeat, the Kalasha were ruled by a line of Chitrali kings called the Rais.[15] Sometime in the 16th century, the Rais were succeeded by the Katur family of Afghanistan who assumed control over the Kalasha and their territory (Maggi 2004, 20-23). The Katur family ruled as the Mehtars of Chitral for hundreds of years until the eventual transition to the British Empire. (Cacopardo 1992, 367) The Mehtars’ rule over the Kalasha community was brutal. Although “the Kalasha received some protection as dependents of the Mehtars from both the raids of the Afghan Kafirs and the incessant proselytizing of Islamic missionaries,”[16] the Mehtars exacted heavy tribute, forced labor, and frequently sold the Kalasha into slavery. (Maggi 2004, 23) The Mehtars converted the majority of Chitrali residents to Islam but permitted the Kalasha to retain their traditions and beliefs. (Maggi 2004, 23) Anthropologist Peter Parkes argues this was because Mehtars consulted the Kalasha as diviners. (Parkes 1995; Maggi 2004, 23) However, retaining their cultural and religious beliefs was often met with resentment and hostility. The Kalasha were enslaved under the Mehtars’ rule, effectively reducing their community to the lowest socio-economic of all Chitrali societies. (Maggi 2004, 20-21)

Following the Siege of Chitral in 1885, the British Empire established a young Mehtar[17] as their permanent garrison in Chitral (Robertson 1898; Maggi 2004, 27). Ten years later, upon the creation of the “Durand line,” the British formally incorporated Chitral into British India. This new political establishment safeguarded the Kalasha from Amir Abdur Rehman’s military campaign into Kafirstan in the winter of 1895. (Maggie 2004, 20; Di Carlo 2007, 47) The Kalasha valleys remained separate from the first inception of Pakistan in 1947, as a part of the British princely territory of Chitral. (Parkes 1999, 4) The tribe was, however, freed from the serfdom it had suffered under the Mehtars during this period—in the early 1950s. (Parkes 1994, 159; Maggi 2004, 23) The District of Chitral was officially incorporated into Pakistan in 1969. Subsequently, Chitrali residents formally received Pakistani citizenship[18] under the new Pakistani Constitution in 1973. (Naqvi 1996, 686) Kalasha oral traditions proudly highlight their ancestors’ decision to endure slavery, forced labor, and the burden of heavy tribute rather than compromise their religion, customs, and identity.

Part 2 can be found here

John Cosenza is a Market Research Analyst at Zitter Health Insights as well as a part time Research Consultant at the Mitchell Firm, a Washington D.C. based lobbying and consultancy firm. John graduated from Marist College with a dual degree in History & Political Science and graduated from Norwich University with a Master’s Degree in Diplomacy & International Business. John is an experienced professional with a unique combination of primary and secondary research skills as well as writing skills. He has experience working in the private and non-profit sector conducting secondary, qualitative, and quantitative research for multiple organizations including the world’s largest marketing and advertising agency, an international marketing consultancy firm, and a Washington, D.C. based Non-Government Organization (NGO). In addition to his research, John has co-authored multiple articles with Mr. John T. Pinna of the Mitchell firm focusing on international human rights issues and international religious persecution. John continues to work with political, think tank, and NGO leaders in the Washington D.C. metro area to advocate for international religious freedom. He can be reached at [email protected] or

John T. Pinna is the Vice President of the Mitchell Firm. A 20-year veteran of international development, he works tirelessly to develop programming with practical impacts on the lives of some of the most vulnerable populations in the world, working in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia, and others. A staunch advocate for religious freedom, Pinna led the 2011 campaign for the reauthorization of the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and has executed programming for the U.S. Department of State, USAID, EU, and several additional entities. Born in August 24, 1975 in New York, Pinna is a third generation Afghan American, an Indo-Greek of Bactrian descent from Nuristan Province in Afghanistan. Pinna considers himself a pluralist who happens to be Muslim. He maintains a deep connection to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Central Asia Region. He can be reached at [email protected] or

[1] The names given to the Kalasha by neighboring residents is derogatory. The term “Kalash” in Chitrali is very pejorative, and “Kafir” is considered so offensive that it is scarcely pronounced (Cacopardo 1991, 278-279)

[2] Known as the Northwest Frontier Province until 2010 (Baloch 2010)

[3] Including UNESCO, World Bank, the Nordic Institute for Asiatic Studies, Greek Volunteers, and the Kalash Environment Protection Society (KEPS) etc.

[4] Mass conversions of the Kalasha community began with Amir’s invasion of Hindu Kush valleys in 1896. Some writers claim that Amir’s forces were comparatively ‘gentle’ in their treatment of the Kafirs (Kalasha). Perhaps in comparison to his normal methods, these observations might be true, but from a modern perspective, there is nothing mild about the massacre of hundreds and the forcible conversion of thousands (Naqvi 1996, 682)

[5] Most scholarly estimates of the size of the Kalasha population range between 3,000 and 4,000 people. Most of these estimates are based on a census conducted in 1998. However, UNESCO reports that Pakistan’s 2005 census shows that at that time 5,000 people identified as Kalasha speakers, perhaps indicating a recent increase in the tribe’s numbers

[6] Kalasha oral history proclaims that Kalasha numbers and territory used to be far greater. This claim is at least in part corroborated by Cacopardo’s hypothesis that Kalasha territory used to extend much farther: at least to include valleys such as Urtsun and Jinjiret Kuh, and perhaps even throughout Southern Chitral. Some scholars estimate that as recently as 1896, the Kalasha population numbered 100,000 (Naqvi 1996, 674; Cacopardo 1992, 371; Di Carlo 2006, 141)

[7] Fixed gender roles play a prominent role in Kalasha culture. These gender divisions do not pertain to task distribution alone, but also play a prominent role in Kalasha religion. Kalasha gender roles have recently become a subject of much curiosity, particularly due to what is perceived as more freedom and liberal attitudes towards women in contrast to the Kalasah’s Muslim neighbors. Kalasha women, for example, are free to choose their spouses and are not required to wear veils, burqas, or niqabs (Maggi 2004, 75)

[8] For instance, enterprises to make Kalasha husbandry commercially viable have failed, as tribesmen persisted in keeping sacrificial goats for an excess of years (Parkes 1999, 10). Although Kalasha women have been suspicious of high-yield cereal varieties, government-subsidized maize almost entirely displaced traditional strains of millet by 1990 (11). Kalasha have additionally been resistant to the introducing of chemical fertilizers to the valleys (11). Irrigation channels (12). Higher yielding in comparison with neighbors (9). Native activist Saifullah Jan emphasizes that if NGOs wish to “help,” they should teach the Kalasha something that they are not already well versed in (Parkes 1999, 1; World Minorities Report 4)

[9] The Cacopardos reject an earlier hypothesis that the Kalasha immigrated around 1500 CE in favor of a linguistically-based argument that the Kalasha must have arrived around the time of the earliest Aryan migrations into North Western India around the end of the second millennium BCE (Cacopardo 1992, 371)

[10] Genetic testing disproves this myth, suggesting instead  that the Kalasha may be of Indo-Arian or European descent (Mansoor, Mazhar et. all 484). Linguistic studies, linking Kalashamun to Dardic languages, reinforces the Indo-Arian hypothesis (World Minorities Report 2). Caroe, in fact, argues that even the legend of Macedonian descent itself is a relatively recent introduction to Kalasha history, most likely entering tribal history via Arabic translations of “Western” historical records during the time of the Abbasid Caliphate of Baghdad (Cacopardo 1992, 367)

[11] Oral tradition in Urtsun relates that the first ancestor came from Arabia and belonged to the Quraish, the tribe in which Prophet Mohammad was born (Cacopardo 1991, 335)

[12] Saifullah Jan, a Kalasha spokesman, revealed the tradition of the Kalasha history that the first homeland of the Kalasha people was Tysam. However, no one knows where Tsyam is on the globe. It has been lost to history and myth (Ali 2011, 1)

[13] Tarikh-e-Chitral

[14] Shah Nadir Rais

[15] As ra’iis in Arabic translates to something along the lines of “leader, head, chief,” the title, Rais, may not designate a name so much as a title. Perhaps this may help explain the discrepancy between various historical accounts referencing either the Rais ruler or line (Khan Kalash 9, 23; Cacopardo 1992, 367; Cacopardo 1991 Pt 1, 276; Maggie 22)

[16] Like other Katur subjects, Kalasha were forced to pay substantial tribute in honey, walnuts, and livestock to Chitrali overlords. One male from each household was required to perform arduous corvée labor several days each month. Young women and children were sometimes sold into slavery. The proceeds from these sales were used to pay foreign luxuries. (Maggie 23, Durand 1899, 51-52, cited in Parkes 1983, 22)

[17] A fourteen-year-old individual known as Shuja-ul-Mulk assumed the role of Mehtar

[18] In 1972, the title, privileges, and privy purse of the Mehtar were abolished, with slavery and unpaid labor outlawed. The Kalash were not citizens of Pakistan, theoretically on par with all other citizens, and entitled under the Pakistani Constitution to the most enlightened set of rights (Naqvi 1996, 686)

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