Pakistan activists: More interactions among religions would aid tolerance

By Shehryar Warraich  |  July 28, 2015 at 1:10 PM
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LAHORE, Pakistan July 28 (News Lens Pakistan) -- Pakistani human rights activists say a lack of interaction among members of different religions has contributed to increasing threats to minorities in the last decade.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif called for protection of minorities in his 20-point counterterrorism plan, announced in December after the Taliban attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar.

The National Commission for Justice and Peace, a human rights group formed by the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Pakistan, says 7 million Christians, 1,500 Sikh families and 10 million Hindus and Ahmadiyya Muslims are considered minorities in Pakistan.

"Incidents like the suicide attacks on Peshawar and Lahore churches, the increasing number of Hindu kidnapped girls in Sindh province, assassinations of Sikhs in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Ahmadiyya Muslims, assaults on Christian individuals and neighborhoods shows the poor situation of minorities in Pakistan," said the group's director, Yousaf Benjamin.

Romana Bashir, director of the Peace and Development Foundation, which works on religious issues, said in a phone interview that more than 150,000 Hindus, Sikhs and Christians have migrated to India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines because of increasing bigotry.

Citing a report by the Movement for Solidarity and Peace in Pakistan, a Pakistani human rights research organization, Bashir said, "Almost 1,000 Christian and Hindu girls aged between 12 and 25 are being forced to convert to Islam every year."

Historian and writer Mubarak Ali called for changes in school curriculum.

"Subjects like social studies, Pakistan studies, Urdu and Islamic studies carry lots of biased information from first grade to high school books. These books are being printed with the approval of the government through their contractors," he told News Lens Pakistan.

Ali said that since the new curriculum was designed after Pakistan's 1971 war with India, the information carries an anti-Indian and anti-Hindu bias. He added that no government has ever tried to change the curriculum.

Such biases are a problem at the elementary school level, as well. Ayub Sajid of the Organization for Development and Peace pointed to references to the idea that Pakistan was formed only for Muslims, as well as the Islamic orientation of books and lessons used and aspects hostile to other groups elsewhere in the curriculum. These same books make little reference to the contributions minorities have made to Pakistan's history and society.

Former Punjab Education Minister Mian Imran Masood told News Lens that from 2002 to 2008 his government took steps to lessen intolerance toward other religions and sects. He said discriminatory references to minorities were struck from all curriculum under his government, along with references to jihad and guns.

Some organizations, such as Social Action Transformation of Humanity, which works on poverty reduction, are working directly with children from various backgrounds and teaching them to work together. Kashif Nawab, a team leader with the organization, told News Lens Pakistan that their primary spotlight is schoolchildren, particularly up to fifth grade, using such activities as painting, sports and exchanging gifts.

The group is working with 500 students from public, private and religious schools in Lahore.

Various religious scholars favor teachings of interfaith harmony, but with some reservations. Allama Zubair Elahi Zaheer is one of those who believe that Pakistan was established for Muslims and it should be taught in schools.

"Omitting this history from books would be a betrayal of the martyrs who sacrificed everything at the time of Pakistan's existence. It is our belief that Muslims will be superior in a Muslim country," he told News Lens Pakistan. "How would all be equal in a country that was acquired to protect rights of all Muslims, but it is also part of our belief that we will protect all minorities of our land. So, education must be a true reflection of Islamic ideology," he said.

Maulana Tahir Ashrafi, chairman of the Pakistan Ulema Council, made up of about 25,000 scholars and clerics, disagreed.

"To spread abhorrence has become a trade of some of our religious leaders. In addition, our educational structure is an immense foundation of intolerance. The commonalities of Islam and other religions should be a component of curriculum to prop up broad-mindedness and harmony in society," he said.

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