As COVID-19 makes its way around the world it does not discriminate between faith groups but in Pakistan, a country notorious for oppressing religious minorities, minority groups have some reason for hope even in these trying times.
Earlier this week, The Nation, a Pakistani news paper, ran an article describing a bill that is due to be presented in Parliament which—if passed—will provide a significant platform for the religious minority communities of Pakistan. It would be composed of Christians, Sikhs, Ahmadis, Buddhists, Parsis and Kalash. One third of the the National Council of Minorities would even, by law, have to be women.
The council’s mandate would be to ensure that the rights, freedoms, and liberties are guaranteed to religious minorities in Pakistan’s Constitution would practically enforced. Currently, discrimination is all too commonplace for religious minorities in Pakistan and they regularly find themselves suppressed and persecuted. The United States Department of State listed Pakistan as a Country of Particular Concern—a step that, in theory, would impose sanctions and other measures to encourage progress on this front in Pakistan.
The council would also work as an authority in reviewing the textbooks currently in use throughout the school system of the country. These textbooks are riddled with hatred and discriminatory language targeting the religious minorities of the country. It is widely understood that the education of the population in this manner is a major contributing factor to the increased levels of persecution and discrimination in the workplace, schools, and in civil society as a whole.
The council would also serve as civil court system, working closely with established institutions to mitigate some level of civil dispute.
While passage of this bill would signify a hallmark moment for the religious minorities of Pakistan, it is not enough by itself. Major segments of Pakistan’s civil society, cultural construct, and legal system have been driven by extreme bias against religious minorities. Persecution and discrimination remain a constant source of oppression for religious minorities. False accusations under the infamous blasphemy law serve as a muzzle on the freedom of expression and speech for all religious minorities.
The council would be a step in the right direction, but should be coupled with a comprehensive overhaul of the education system, repeal of the blasphemy law, the mitigation of existing divisions within civil society, and the broader acceptance of a pluralistic society with strong guarantees for religious freedom to convert and change one’s religious disposition free from the onslaught of extremist elements of Pakistan’s society.
Matias Perttula serves as the Advocacy Director for International Christian Concern where he leads the government relations efforts to mobilize the US government to address issues of persecution in countries where religious minorities are oppressed and the freedom of religion is in decline.