In a two and a half hour debate in Westminster Hall, a cross-party group of UK Members of Parliament (MP’s) called on the British Government to take urgent action to press the Pakistan Government to end the persecution of Ahmadi Muslims and other religious groups in Pakistan.
The 11 February debate, called by Siobhain McDonagh MP, featured nearly 20 MP’s from across the UK and across all parties, who unanimously denounced the persecution of Ahmadi Muslims and other religious minorities in Pakistan. Siobhain McDonagh noted that the persecution of Ahmadi Muslims was unique in that it was based on Pakistan’s laws that targeted Ahmadis. The MPs were also critical of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws that carried the death penalty and were used to persecute minority groups with impunity and called for action to end the hate speech and hate rallies against Ahmadis in Pakistan.
Siobhain McDonagh MP, who is also Chair of UK All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community UK, said:
“I was proud to lead this important debate. The stark reality is that for more than 30 years peaceful Ahmadi Muslims have been targeted explicitly by Pakistan’s laws that deny them their right to call themselves Muslims or to practise their Islamic faith – a crime punishable by 3 years imprisonment or by death under the country’s blasphemy laws.
“The laws result in hundreds being killed and systematic persecution from the cradle to the grave with Ahmadi Muslims even denied the right to vote.”
MP’s also called on the Pakistan Government to release 70-year-old Mr Abdul Shakoor, an Ahmadi shopkeeper from Rabwah who was jailed in January for 7 years under the country’s anti-terror laws and anti-Ahmadi laws for possessing copies of the Holy Quran and some religious books.
On this issue Ms McDonagh stated,
“Books inciting violence against Ahmadis are freely available in Pakistan. How can the Pakistan Government justify such injustice? We call on Pakistan to release Mr Shakoor immediately. The blasphemy laws have also fostered a climate of hostility and intimidation against Christians and other minorities who also face horrific violence based on spurious and unfounded allegations of blasphemy. This must end and I hope the UK Government will press upon Pakistan the need to uphold its international obligations and the rights guaranteed by its constitution to give all citizens complete freedom of religion. As a friend and ally of Pakistan we must send a clear message that there is no room for state sponsored persecution and it must act to redress such issues as a matter of urgency.”
MP’s also called for the immediate release of Mr Tahir Mehdi Imtiaz who has been held for 10 months without charge on spurious allegations of blasphemy.
Naz Shah MP for Bradford West also spoke in the debate and said,
“Let me start with the words of Muhammed Ali Jinnah, the founding father of the nation, in his first presidential address to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on 11 August 1947: ‘You are free; you are free to go to your temples. You are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion, caste or creed…We are starting in the days where there is no discrimination, no distinction between one community and another, no discrimination between one caste or creed and another. We are starting with this fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one State.’
“I want to ask the people in this Chamber, the nation and the people of Pakistan a question: 68 years have passed since Pakistan’s independence and since Muhammad Ali Jinnah made that speech, but where have those freedoms for all the people of Pakistan gone? Where did we start, and where we have we gone? A nation consisting of 191 million people, according to the latest UN estimate, is seeing huge human rights violations and abhorrent discrimination targeting 4%of its minority community.
“I am deeply saddened that while I, a member of a minority community, have all these freedoms, minorities in Pakistan, such as Ahmadis, Christians, Sikhs, Hindus and others, do not have the religious freedom that Muhammad Ali Jinnah once advocated, but instead face religious persecution.
“That religious persecution has led over the years to thousands of vile crimes being committed against minority communities. According to a report by the United States commission on international religious freedom, between January and June 2013—just six months—there were 108 attacks on minorities, leading to 82 deaths. Of those killed, 22 were Ahmadis, 11 were Christians, two were Hindus, one was a Sikh and 16 were from other minority groups. It must be made clear that the fight against the war on terror in Pakistan, the rise in extremism and the questionable implications of outside actors funding that extremism through the teaching systems in some madrassahs have intensified the persecution against minority communities.
“The Shi’a community is a Muslim minority community recognised by the Pakistan state, yet sectarianism and extremism have led to heinous crimes being committed against it. The south Asian terrorism portal found that between 2002 and 2013, 2,086 Shia’s were killed. What is more worrying is the fact that in 2002 and 2003, six and two Shia’s respectively were killed in sectarian hate crimes, whereas 399 Shia’s were killed in 2012 and 410 in 2013.
“The rising level of hate is clear, but one of the biggest concerns is that the rising level of extremism is leading to further extremist groups declaring the Shi’a community as non-Muslim and heretics—they are recognised by the state as Muslims—thus validating them for “wajibul kattal”—deserving to be killed. If that is the level of persecution of a community recognised by the state, one can only imagine the fear and terror that other minority communities in Pakistan are living in today.
“I would welcome and encourage Pakistan holding a religious minority conference with hundreds of world scholars, similar to the one that took place in Marrakech a few weeks ago.
Finally, as a member of a minority community who is benefiting from all the religious freedoms in my homeland, I cannot stand by and watch minorities have their freedoms discriminated against in my motherland. Pakistan is an Islamic state, so for the second time in this Chamber I will use my religion and quote verse or ayah 256 of Surat Al-Baqarah of the Koran: ‘There is no compulsion in religion’.”
Fabian Hamilton, MP for Leeds North East and Labour Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs also spoke at the debate and said,
“Religious intolerance and persecution should have no place anywhere in the world today, but unfortunately, as we have heard so clearly this afternoon, it does. It is a matter of huge regret that countries, especially Pakistan, continue to persecute minorities—not just the Ahmadiyya Muslims but other minorities as well.
“Ahmadiyya Muslims are particularly targeted for persecution; laws restricting the practice of their religion are used often to threaten and harass them. My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden stated that it is shocking that the persecution of the Ahmadiyya community is enshrined in law. It certainly is shocking to all of us who are democrats and believe in religious freedom.
“Blasphemy allegations are often false, as we have heard, and are often used to promote violence against religious minorities. In 2015 the Home Office said: ‘There is clear evidence that the legislation is used by non-state actors to threaten and harass Ahmadis’.
“Labour believe, as I am sure do Members throughout the House, in freedom of religion, not just in the United Kingdom but throughout the world—the freedom to worship without fear or persecution. There is not a Member in this Chamber or the House who would oppose that.
Jim Shannon MP, Chair of the APPG for International Freedom of Religion or Belief, said:
“The level of discrimination against religious organisations and individuals in Pakistan, such as Ahmadis, Christians, Shi’as, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs and Jews, is immense… There are many cases of church bombings, mob attacks on Christian communities and rape against women and girls…the killing of some 40 Shi’a Muslims in Karachi in May 2015 marked a new low in sectarian violence that has left Pakistan’s religious minorities fearing for their lives.”
The debate also called for action in Bulgaria, Thailand and in particular Indonesia where this month Ahmadi families were forcibly evicted from their homes in Bangka-Belitung by the local government simply on grounds of faith.
Ms Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh MP, Foreign Affairs Spokesperson for the Scottish National Party, Fabian Hamilton MP, Labour Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Rt Hon Tom Brake MP LibDem Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs noted the dire situation of freedom of religion in Pakistan and called for urgent action by the Pakistan Government to address this issue.
Foreign Office Minister, Tobias Ellwood MP, noted the UK’s “strong, powerful and important relationship” with Pakistan and stated that,
“…the Pakistani constitution discriminates against [Ahmadi Muslims]… They struggle to exercise their right to vote…[and] Ahmadiyya Muslims are denied education for the same reasons. They face arbitrary detention, their literature is banned, their mosques are attacked and, … their minarets are also destroyed.
Assuring action on this issue Mr Ellwood stated that,
“The Government deplores violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief, wherever they occur. We regularly urge the Government of Pakistan to honour their international commitments and guarantee fully the human rights of all Pakistani citizens.”
Dr Mohammed Iqbal, President of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community Bradford North said:
“It was an important and timely debate. The persecution of Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan must end as must the horrific violence against Christians and other minorities. Pakistan must repeal is discriminatory laws that deny its own citizens their basic human rights. I thank our MP Naz Shah for speaking in the debate – it sent a loud and clear message that such persecution will not be accepted and Pakistan must be held to account. We pray for peace in Pakistan and for the success of the country based on justice and equality for all.”