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Religious Minorities Suffering Worst in Pakistan Floods

6 minute read
Omar Waraich / Islamabad

Updated: Friday, Sept. 3, 2010

In one of the more unfortunate developments attending the catastrophic floods in Pakistan, the country’s religious minorities are being denied relief and aid — and being attacked by extremists belonging to the country’s Sunni majority even as the faithful mark the holy month of Ramadan.

Thumping their chests as they wailed, thousands of Shi’ite Muslims gathered in the eastern city of Lahore on Thursday to mourn the victims of a triple suicide bombing that ripped through the city the night before. Two of the bombers struck Shi’ite worshippers as they were dispersing after a procession. The third bomber attacked a group clustered in a square. In all, 31 people were killed and more than 200 injured, sparking violent protests against the police for failing to protect them. The bombings came just hours after assailants opened fire on a procession of Shi’ites in the southern port city of Karachi, injuring seven people.

A senior Pakistani security official told TIME that the attacks were ordered by Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a Sunni extremist group with deep ties to al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban. For such groups, it is not only legitimate to attack other Muslim sects but even a virtue to do so during Islam’s holy month of Ramadan. Members of the Ahmadi Muslim sect have also been killed recently. On Aug. 18, Najam al-Hasan, 39, an assistant professor of science at Karachi’s Dow University, was shot dead by attackers in a passing car as he was shutting to his clinic. The following day, Peer Habib-ur-Rehman, a U.S. citizen who was visiting Pakistan on business, was slain after masked men stopped him on the way to his farm in the town of Sanghar in Sindh and shot him twice in the head. He was the second Ahmadi American citizen to be killed in as many years while visiting Pakistan.

(See pictures of flood-ravaged Pakistan.)

The Ahmadis have endured riots against them for more than 50 years. In 1974, the Ahmadis were excommunicated by the Pakistani government for alleged heresy because the sect considers its 19th century leader Mirza Ghulam Ahmed a prophet. State-sanctioned discrimination has seen many Ahmadis leave Pakistan to find sanctuary in the west. Those who remain have been at increasing risk as militant groups intensify their sectarian attacks and the authorities reportedly deny the Ahmadis adequate protection. In May, the Ahmadi community suffered its worst attack when 86 people were gunned down in an hours-long siege of two separate mosques in Lahore. Authorities suspect that Lashkar-e-Jhangvi was behind those attacks as well.

(See what survivors carried away from Pakistan’s floods.)

(Update: On Friday, at least 43 Shi’ite Muslims were killed in the southwestern city of Quetta after a suicide bomber struck a procession they were carrying out in support of Palestinian rights. On the same day, five Ahmadis were killed when a bomb hit a mosque in the northwest city of Mardan.)

And in the middle of the current calamity, it is not just religious extremists who victimize the Ahmadis. As the floodwaters submerged vast tracts of southern Punjab, some 500 Ahmadi families were among those driven from their homes and forced to seek shelter in makeshift camps. But unlike the other flood victims, they were denied access to relief aid, members of the community and human rights groups say. “The local mullahs told the civil administration not to give them any help,” says Shahid Ataullah, a senior member of the Ahmadi community. “They said, ‘You don’t dare do this. These people should be left to fend for themselves because they are non-Muslims.'”

The incident received scant reporting in the local press; and, so far, there has been no action from the government. Instead, other Ahmadis have stepped in to provide help. “This is most distressing, but then it is nothing more than we expected,” adds Ataullah, striking a tone of somber resignation. “As a community, we have decided that we will take care of them.” Relief goods are now regularly transported to southern Punjab from Rabwa, a town further north where the community is headquartered. In addition to the help they had gathered for those affected by the flood, they have set up a special fund for their own community.

(Read about how despite the aid, Pakistanis are suspicious of the U.S.)

The discrimination against the Ahmadis and the killing of Shi’ites underscore the vulnerabilities faced by Pakistan’s minorities, says Ali Dayan Hasan, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The state has to understand that any public display of religiosity by non-Sunnis has become a security risk for the people who are out in the procession. These groups require special protection.” This year, the sectarian militants’ focus has broadened to even include members of Pakistan’s majority Barelvi sect, a moderate group influenced by Sufism. On July 1, 40 people were killed at Lahore’s famed Data Darbar shrine also by a triple suicide bombing.

The attack on Data Darbar drew outrage across the country and forced the Punjab government headed by Shahbaz Sharif, the younger brother of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, to carry out a crackdown on sectarian groups. But the arrests were merely a roundup of known low-level members and were decried as insufficient by analysts and opposition politicians alike. “Why is the Punjab police not there to protect the innocent?” asks a parliamentarian from the ruling Pakistan People’s Party. The parliamentarian cites a string of assaults — from the Aug 2009 attack on a colony of poor Christians in the central Punjabi town of Gojra, to this month’s lynching of two teenage boys in the city of Sialkot, where the police stood by as the brothers were beaten to death in an incident that has sparked outrage across Pakistan and raised fears of a breakdown in law and order.

“The Punjab government has a very specific history of greater tolerance towards Sunni extremists,” says Hasan of Human Rights Watch. In March, the Punjab law minister publicly campaigned alongside the Sipah-e-Sahaba, the outlawed sectarian outfit that spawned Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, in the central Punjabi town of Jhang during a by-election. “In the current context what that does is that it places Shi’ites, Ahmadis and Christians at a very high level of risk,” says Hasan. “And the Punjab government’s continued inability to deal with this situation… despite international and domestic outrage at, leads to repeated atrocities.”

At the same time, the federal government has failed to live up to its promises to amend or repeal the country’s blasphemy laws. It also has displayed no willingness to strike down the anti-Ahmadi laws that sentence members of the sect to three years in prison for attempting to cast themselves as Muslims. The laws offer what is virtually state approval to those intent on attacking minorities. The attacks have also posed a reminder of the potent threat emanating from North Waziristan, the tribal area along the Afghan border where Lashkar-e-Jhangvi is based. Washington has long been urging the Pakistan army to take action in that region.

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