Fri, May 10, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Persecution has eroded Pakistani minorities’ faith in democracy

As the nation prepares for elections, minority religious groups fear extremists will piggyback on the efforts of mainstream political parties to positions of power

By Kathy Gannon  /  AP, LAHORE, Pakistan

“We have lost our hope from the democratic forces because they do everything for money” and nothing for minorities, he said.

Pakistan’s Christian communities have complaints as well.

In March, a mob of young Muslims stormed and set fire to nearly 150 homes and shops in the Joseph Christian Colony, a Christian enclave on the outskirts of Lahore, the capital of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, where 60 percent of Pakistanis live and where militant Islamic groups have their headquarters.

The mob gathered after one resident was accused of blasphemy, but local people say it was a tiff over money. Most residents fled for their lives, returning the next morning and eventually rebuilding their homes. On April 30, some radicals attacked 25-year-old resident Babar Ilyas. His injured arm and leg wrapped in bandages, Ilyas said he was beaten by radicals who warned Christians to leave the area and drop charges against at least two people arrested in connection with the earlier attack.

“We do not have any hope in elections,” said Salim Gabriel, a self-declared social worker for Christians and colony resident. “Dictatorship is better for minorities.”

Gabriel accused political parties of aligning with radical Islamic groups to get votes and campaigning with well-known militants, which he says emboldens radicals among Pakistan’s Sunni majority to carry out attacks against minorities with impunity.

Minority religious groups fear extremists will piggyback on the backs of mainstream political parties to a position of political power. They most often point to Nawaz Sharif, the head of the Pakistan Muslim League. In an interview, Sharif’s spokesman Siddiq-ul-Farooqi flatly rejected any links to extremist groups.

“We are a moderate party and have no relationship with extremists,” Farooqi said.

However, members of the party have been seen on the campaign trail with members of extremist parties like the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamat, a new name for the outlawed Sunni militant group Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP). Minority leaders and election monitoring groups say Sharif’s party is withdrawing candidates in certain electoral constituencies to give radical religious candidates an unchallenged run for election.

Farooqi denied any accommodation with extremist groups.

However, Pakistani politics is rarely straightforward. Sharif’s party has fielded several Shiite candidates, even as it rubbed shoulders with militant Islamists who publicly call Shiites apostates deserving of death.

Most of the deadly attacks targeting Shiites in Pakistan have been carried out by a group affiliated with the SSP. Yet the renamed SSP is fighting elections as part of a coalition of six radical religious parties. Maulana Ahmed Ludhianvi, the leader of the SSP and a candidate, said the coalition has 300 candidates running for election. His party placards often hurl abuses at Shiites, calling them kafirs, or non-believers.

The non-believer epitaph is also widely used in reference to Ahmedis, who consider themselves Muslims, but have been explicitly declared non-Muslims in Pakistan’s constitution.

As well as violent attacks on its members, Ahmedi leaders said they have been singled out with a separate electoral roll that identifies them as Ahmedis. The separate list also gives their addresses, making them easy targets. Security was tightened after a brutal attack in 2010 when militants simultaneously hit two Ahmedi mosques in Lahore, killing more than 100 people and wounding scores more.

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