Persecution of minority Ahmadiyya in Pakistan intensifies

Islamabad's failure to protect the community could affect its trade relations with the European Union
Imran Khan

REUTERS/NASEER CHAUDARY  -   Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan

Imran Khan came to power in 2018 riding the populist wave to end the bloc dynamics that had ruled Pakistan for the past decades. With an independent profile and a past marked by an illustrious career as a cricketer, his Western appearance led the rest of the world to believe that the Asian nation would move towards political openness. Nothing could be further from the truth. Pakistan today is a more intolerant and repressive country towards its minorities than in previous eras, particularly the Ahmadiyya community. A situation that jeopardises its trade links with, among others, the European Union.

Kamran Ahmed, a Pakistani citizen of Ahmadi faith, was killed this week in Peshawar. The 40-year-old is the fifth person to be killed in the city in the last two years for his faith. It is yet another case that highlights the persecution experienced by the community in Pakistan. Along with the Christian minority, Ahmadis are marginalised from public life and persecuted in their privacy. This situation has been echoed by organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

Since mid-2020, at least five members of the Ahmadiyya community have been murdered in Pakistan. Of these, three have not even been solved by the authorities and in two cases only suspects were arrested. "The Pakistani authorities have long downplayed, and sometimes even encouraged, violence against Ahmadis, whose rights to freedom of religion and belief are not respected under Pakistani law," say human rights organisations.

Originated at the end of the 19th century in India by the prophet Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the Ahmadiyya sect is recognised as a branch of Islam and declares itself as such. It is a sort of third way between Shi'ism and Sunnism with a reformist orientation. Conditions that expose it to Islamic fundamentalists, who regard the community as heretical or apostate. In this context, the Pakistani state, supported by Islamist institutions, represents a threat to the interests of the minority.

AP/K.M.CHAUDARY  -  Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan assured residents of disputed Kashmir on Friday that he will expose Indian oppression and human rights violations in the region over the years when he addresses the UN General Assembly this month

In 1985, under the military dictatorship of Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistan swept away universal suffrage and imposed a census division between Muslim and non-Muslim citizens. Since then, Ahmadis have been barred from voting. If they register to vote, they must renounce their faith. Otherwise, they must allow themselves to be included on a separate electoral list and accept their status as "non-Muslims". These requirements are unacceptable to Ahmadis, who hold their self-identification as Muslims sacred.

The four million Ahmadis in Pakistan, with a total population of 221 million, face complications even in obtaining identity cards. The law holds that every citizen must disclose his religious denomination to obtain a passport and, if he calls himself a Muslim, he must then sign a declaration calling the founder of the Ahmadi branch, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, an impostor. As with the vow, they must renounce their faith.

Prime Minister Imran Khan has excluded Ahmadis from positions of responsibility in the executive during his tenure. Pressure from the highest echelons of the state, mainly the army and the intelligence service (ISI), brought down the appointment of Princeton University-trained Ahmadi economist Atif Mian as an adviser to the head of government.

But the political rights of Ahmadis are not the only ones curtailed in Pakistan. Islamabad's most targeted area is undoubtedly the religious sphere, where the blasphemy law, included in Article 295-C of the Penal Code, among others, is in force. This legislation prescribes a mandatory death penalty for anyone who desecrates the name of the Prophet Muhammad. Thus, the Ahmadiyya belief would be subject to capital punishment. In May 2020, the Pakistani government excluded the community from being categorised as a minority, so they could not receive protection from the commission dedicated to safeguarding their rights.

Luis Garicano
PHOTO/ARCHIVO  -  Luis Garicano MEP

Ahmadis are prohibited from "posing as Muslims", declaring or propagating their faith, calling to prayer or building mosques. Persecution is so severe that forced conversions of minors belonging to religious minorities occur in the country. Although Christians and Hindus are the most affected in this respect, Ahmadis also suffer. This is increasingly difficult to report given the crusade against freedom of expression and the media.

Possible reprisals from Europe

Luis Garicano MEP, a member of Ciudadanos and a member of the Renew Europe group, travelled to Pakistan last week where he witnessed the persecution of religious minorities. A visit that he described as "fascinating" in which he held a series of meetings with the Senior Trade Advisor, the Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Justice, the Attorney General, the Speaker of Parliament. He also met with opposition leaders, journalists and members of civil society.

But it was his meetings with representatives of minority communities that changed the economist's perception. In Garicano's opinion, the EU should rethink its economic relations with the Asian country. "Europe has zero trade tariffs on many Pakistani products (GSP+) in exchange for implementing 27 human rights conventions. Pakistan exports 31 per cent of all its exports to the EU. The status expires in December 2023 and is now up for review," he tweeted.

"The European delegation wanted to make sure that the human rights part of the agreement moves forward. Only if human rights are respected can Pakistan prosper, defeat extremism and achieve the level of progress it deserves," he added. "The worst thing is that there is no progress on these issues. In fact, things are going backwards in terms of journalistic freedom. Our message was clear: Pakistan must not take its privileged trade status for granted. The EU has done its part, Pakistan must do its part," Garicano said.