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Religious freedom in Pakistan

by Michele Lipori

by Michele Lipori, Confronti Editorial Staff.

Modern Pakistan—an independent state from India—was born on August 14, 1947 with the Indian Independence Act as the final act of the “theory of two nations,” which postulated that Hindus and Muslims living in South Asia constituted two distinct nations. Pakistan remained under British rule until 1956 when it adopted its first constitution, in which Islam was the state religion. In 1971, East Pakistan declared its independence by founding the state of Bangladesh.

Pakistan today is the fifth-most populated country in the world, with a population of nearly 242 million, and is also the second largest country by Muslim population (immediately after Indonesia). The idea that religion was a determining factor in defining the nationality of Indian Muslims was espoused by Muhammad Ali Jinnah (lawyer and politician, one of the country’s founding fathers). Despite the fact that the Muslim population represents the vast majority, there are very important religious minorities in the country, such as Hinduism, practiced by over 4.5 million people whose majority reside in the Sindh region, and Sikhism, practiced by over 20,000 people who mostly reside in Pakistani Punjab. Formally, freedom of religion (and consequently the idea of ​​secularism) in Pakistan is guaranteed by the Constitution of Pakistan of 1973—but this question still remains very thorny and has had ups and downs in the history of the country.

Just think of a famous statement by Khawaja Nazimuddin, politician and second Prime Minister of Pakistan (1951-1953), in which he stated: “I do not agree that religion is a private affair of the individual nor am I in agreement on the fact that in an Islamic State every citizen has identical rights, regardless of his caste, creed or faith.”

Ordinances of Hudood

The amendments to the Constitution made during the Islamization process implemented by President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq – who established a military dictatorship from 1977 to 1988 – led to the so-called Hudood Ordinances (1979) which, in addition to providing for penalties aimed at combating gambling and the consumption of alcohol, made the offenses of adultery and fornication criminal, providing for punishments that included flogging, amputations and the death sentence by stoning. The text of these ordinances was heavily revised only in 2006 through the Women’s Protection Bill.

The law in Pakistan places limits on freedom of speech with regards to religion. It is in fact forbidden to express opinions in opposition to Islam and to publish statements and articles that sound like an attack on Islam or its prophets. The Pakistani penal code provides for the death penalty or life imprisonment for anyone who profanes the name of Muhammad, life imprisonment for anyone who desecrates the Koran and up to 10 years of imprisonment for anyone who insults the religious beliefs of a Pakistani citizen. NGOs such as Amnesty International still register numerous cases in which the blasphemy law is used by the government to limit the right of expression to some political and religious minorities, as in the case of the Ahmadiyya followers.

The status of non-Muslims

The judicial system comprises several systems (civil, criminal and Islamic) with overlapping and sometimes competing jurisdiction. The Federal Sharia Court and the Supreme Court Sharia Court (whose members must be Islamic) serve as appellate courts for some criminal convictions (as regulated by the Hudood Ordinance). The federal sharia court can also overturn any legislation deemed incompatible with the principles of Islam. Some offenses are classified as “civil” (tazir), others (including many of those contemplated in the Hudood Ordinances), are classified as “Koranic” (hadd). Both cases are discussed in ordinary criminal courts but in hadd cases are apply special rules which in fact are to the disadvantage of non-Muslims. For example, a non-Muslim can only testify if the victim is also a non-Muslim. Similarly, the testimony of women, Muslim or non-Muslim, is not admissible for hadd cases.

Ahmadiyya in Pakistan

The ahmadiyya believes that it embodies the Islamic message in its purest form. The founder was sent directly by God in order to revitalize his original message, a work that continues through the institution of the caliphate. For these reasons, relations with Muslims have always been conflicting, also because the majority of converts come from within Islam.

The greatest opposition came above all from the founding of Pakistan in 1947.

Ph. © Abuzar Xheikh

Michele Lipori

Michele Lipori

Confronti Editorial Staff

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