What are the current challenges that are faced by Pakistan’s religious minorities? What can be done to promote a religious freedom that protects the rights of all Pakistani’s to freely believe as they wish, act on those beliefs, and participate in all of life?
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Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif made an important gesture toward Pakistan’s religious minorities when he gave a speech March 14, 2017 criticizing Islamist extremist ideology at an event celebrating a Hindu holiday. In his speech, made in Karachi on the festival of Holi, he said, “Pakistan was not made so one religion can dominate over others.…Pakistan’s creation itself was a struggle against religious oppression.” 
These are profound statements that deserve repetition and reinforcement, particularly if Pakistan wants to win the battle against terrorism. The Pakistan military has stepped up the fight against terrorists with Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad (elimination of discord), prompted by the horrific string of attacks last month that culminated in a suicide bombing of a Sufi shrine that left over 80 dead. The effort involves sending 2,000 Pakistani Army rangers into southern Punjab to root out terrorists that have long festered there.
While they are indeed necessary, military operations alone will not end the threat from terrorism. As former Pakistani Ambassador to the U.S. Sherry Rehman recently argued, a non-kinetic response also is crucial. Pakistani journalist Zahid Husain made a similar point that aside from military operations, “It’s more important to fight the ideology that produces terrorism in the first place.”
One of the main features of the ideology that drives the groups committing these awful acts is hatred for religious minorities.
Extremists are increasingly targeting Pakistan’s religious minorities, including Shia Muslims, which make up about 20 percent of the population. The Easter Day terrorist attack at a park in Lahore last year that was directed at the Christian community was the third major attack against Christians in Pakistan since 2013. Last October five people were killed by gunmen at a Shia gathering in Karachi, just the latest incident in a rising tide of violence directed against the Shia community.
These attacks are the end result of a hardline Islamist ideology that is built on practices such as making unfounded accusations of blasphemy that often result in the death penalty for the accused; outlawing those from the Ahmadi sect of Islam from calling themselves Muslim; and teaching a curriculum in public schools that fosters religious intolerance.
If Pakistan sincerely wants to get a handle on the terrorism problem wracking the country, it must start to reverse these practices and issue more public statements along the lines of what PM Sharif said on Tuesday.
Moreover, Pakistan’s civilian leaders must implement the steps laid out in the National Action Plan that was introduced in the Pakistani parliament over two years ago. The plan calls for the government to crack down on hate speech and the media outlets that employ it. It also highlights the need for steps to protect religious minorities.
The blasphemy law has become particularly problematic in Pakistan in the last several years and the situation demands change. Last October a Pakistani Supreme Court Justice recused himself from hearing an appeal by a Christian mother, Asia Bibi, who has been on death row for seven years on unfounded allegations of committing blasphemy. The judge most likely was concerned that his life would be in danger if Bibi was acquitted.
The ability of religious extremists to influence the judicial process in this way is alarming and shows that extremist ideology is strengthening its grip over Pakistani society.
Tentative Steps Forward
There are some tentative glimmers of light, however, and the Sharif government deserves credit for seeking to begin to roll back the extremist tide and enhance protections for religious minorities. Carrying through last year with the execution of Mumtaz Qadri, who murdered Punjab Governor Salman Taseer in 2011 for his support for amending the blasphemy law, was an important milestone.
The Nawaz government’s introduction of legislation to stop forced conversions of those under the age of 18 was also notable. The legislation was aimed at stopping the all-too-common practice of young Hindu and Christian girls being abducted and forced to convert to Islam and marry their abductors. Unfortunately, religious hardliners objected to the law, arguing it was “un-Islamic,” and it has yet to come into effect.
Sharif’s statement at the Holi celebration on Tuesday also included a reference to the problem when he said, “Islam does not support religious coercion or forcible conversion.” His statement is welcome but he must not give up on passing legislation to make the practice illegal.
Prioritize Religious Freedom in U.S.-Pakistan Dialogue
U.S. policymakers have also made the mistake of relegating religious freedom issues to the bottom of the U.S. foreign policy list. A group of U.S.-based Pakistan experts (including myself) signed letters in 2015 calling on former President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State John Kerry to raise concern about persistent attacks against religious minorities in their meetings with Pakistani officials and to make religious freedom a plank in the U.S.-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue. However, sadly, the letters seemed to have little impact as neither Obama nor Kerry made public reference to religious freedom issues during the Pakistan visits.
Washington must also continue to encourage reform of the educational curricula so that it teaches values of religious tolerance and pluralism.
Lastly, it is important that U.S. officials continue to raise individual cases of violations of religious freedom, and speak up publicly to defend those facing religious persecution. For instance, Washington must sustain its advocacy for the release of Asia Bibi.
Build on Progress
Protecting the rights of religious minorities is not only critical to advancing democracy in Pakistan, it is essential to preserving stability and saving the country from being engulfed by terrorist violence. Enhancing protection of religious freedom must be part of a broader narrative that seeks to counter the message of Islamist hardliners.
There are some recent hopeful signs that the Sharif government is committed to promoting religious tolerance and countering extremist ideology. But statements alone will not win the battle. Let’s hope concrete steps on the legislative and judicial front will soon follow.
Lisa Curtis is Senior Research Fellow on South Asia in the Asian Studies Center of the Heritage Foundation, focusing on U.S. national security interests and geopolitics in the region. Her research has centered on the U.S.-India strategic and defense partnership, U.S. counterterrorism policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and trends in Islamist extremism and religious freedom throughout the region.
**All views and opinions presented in this essay are solely those of the author and publication on Cornerstone does not represent an endorsement or agreement from the Religious Freedom Institute or its leadership.**