ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Amid fears of rising sectarian violence in Pakistan, Christians and other religious minorities expressed alarm about the national government’s decision to abolish a cabinet-level ministry for religious-minority affairs, eliminating the post once held by the murdered Catholic leader Shabhaz Bhatti.
Christian leaders voiced anguish about the relegation of the “ministry for religious minorities” to provincial governments. But a Pakistani Catholic minister defended the action, asserting that “the government will not forsake the religious minorities.”
“This is no downgrading of the concerns of the [religious] minorities. What has been done is mere fulfillment of a legal requirement,” Akram Masih Gill, state deputy minister for Interfaith Harmony and Minorities Affairs in Pakistan’s federal cabinet, said in a July 8 telephone interview.
Gill clarified that Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani has already assured that the federal government will soon have a new ministry to address the concerns of the religious minorities.
The controversy broke out after the federal government approved on June 28 the devolution of seven federal ministries, including the ministry for religious minorities, to the provincial governments under what is known as the 18th Constitutional Amendment.
The other ministries assigned to the provincial governments are the ministry for food and agriculture, health, environment, labor, women’s development and sports.
Pakistan is divided into five provinces: Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (earlier known as North West Frontier), Punjab, Sindh and Azad Kashmir, with the elected provincial governments enjoying limited autonomy.
Soon after the devolution was approved by the federal government, minority religious leaders poured out their concern in a series of public statements.
“The presence of Christians at the federal level is crucial, as they face continual injustice, prejudice and discrimination inscribed in legislation,” lamented Julius Salik, convener of the World Minorities Alliance, in a statement decrying the move.
Leaders from other religious communities, including Hindus and Ahmadiyas, members of an Islamic religious movement founded near the end of the 19th century, also deplored the devolution of the key ministry to provincial governments. The move, they said, would deny a voice to the already marginalized religious communities in Pakistan, where nearly 95% of its 180 million people are Muslims.
After the abolishment of the cabinet-level position stirred controversy, Prime Minister Gilani convened a meeting of the 12 members of the National Assembly representing religious minorities, comprised of eight Hindus, three Christians, including himself, and a Sikh.
“The prime minister has assured us that the new ministry for minorities will be soon in place,” said Gill, who is in his second term in the National Assembly.
“We need to find a new name (for this ministry) so that there will be no legal objections, because, technically, religious minority is now a provincial subject,” pointed out Gill, who was arrested by the police in 2009 for protesting the custodial death of Fanish Masih, a Christian who had been imprisoned on a blasphemy charge.
Contrary to the pessimism evoked by the constitutional changes, Gill noted that the devolution could turn into “a blessing in disguise” for the religious minorities: “While only the Punjab province has a ministry for religious minorities, now each province will be forced to constitute a ministry.” Consequently, religious minorities will have departments at both the provincial level and the national level to take care of their concerns.
Father Emmanuel Yousaf Mani, national director of the Commission for Justice and Peace of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Pakistan, also refused to join the chorus of protest. “It is not fair to say that the religious-minority ministry has been downgraded,” Father Mani said.
“We cannot say that we have been singled out, as several ministries have been entrusted to the provincial government under the 18th Amendment,” added Father Mani. The religious minorities, he pointed out, “need a proper mechanism at the federal level to ensure that their voices are heard and concerns are taken seriously.”
Meanwhile, Gill said that the new federal department to monitor and address concerns of the religious minorities is “likely” to be named “Ministry for Interfaith Harmony and Non-Muslim Affairs.”
Prior to 2008, there was no federal ministry for religious minorities; that cabinet-level position was established by the Pakistan People’s Party after it won the 2008 election.
The fledgling ministry was entrusted to outspoken Roman Catholic politician Shabhaz Bhatti, who was assassinated in Islamabad on March 2 for standing up against the draconian blasphemy law.
Islamic fundamentalists targeted 42-year-old Bhatti for initiating a clemency petition last November for Aasia Bibi, a Christian mother of five sentenced to death on a trumped-up blasphemy charge. Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province, who had worked with Bhatti to push the clemency petition, was assassinated on Jan. 4 by his own security guard.
The recent murders of two prominent critics of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws — Bhatti and Taseer — has fueled fears of deepening religious intolerance in a nation that still plays a strategic role in U.S. efforts to contain Islamic terrorism. While experts report that Prime Minister Zadari remains sympathetic to the concerns of religious minorities, his government has reportedly retreated from its attempt to reform the anti-blasphemy laws used to target Christian minorities, in particular.
“With high-level champions of reform being gunned down for their stance, there will be no chance of reform,” Nina Shea, the commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), stated in a recent published interview.
Shea, the director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based research center, is one among many experts to express alarm that religious extremists “are winning the battle for the soul of Pakistan.”
Anto Akkara writes from Bangalore, India.