ISLAMABAD, Pakistan: The Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) organized a Conference titled “Challenge of Implementing Article 20 (Freedom of Religion) of the Constitution of Pakistan” to commemorate the 9th anniversary of the landmark judgment on minorities’ rights (SMC No. 1/2014) wherein speakers raised their serious concerns over the lack of seriousness on part of the federal and provincial governments to address human rights violations, and called upon the government to take concrete measures to protect religious freedom and minorities’ rights in accordance with the directions of the Judgment issued by Tassaduq Hussain Jillani, then Chief Justice of Pakistan in 2014.
Speaking on the occasion, the executive director of CSJ, Peter Jacob said that the level of compliance with the court orders has not been improved from 25% in the past nine years. The apex court issued over 89 subsequent orders besides the seven original orders passed in 2014, however, they remained unimplemented for lack of policy actions. He added that the judgment, if implemented, has the potential to improve the overall governance, and address institutional dysfunction. Farhatullah Babar said that the state structure promotes biases on the grounds of religion which reflects in discriminatory provisions in the constitution of Pakistan which causes inequality of rights among majority and minority citizens. It is disappointing that governments have failed to adhere to jillani judgment regarding minorities’ rights, therefore, the government needs to pass a bill to establish a statutory national commission for minorities’ rights without any further delay.
Dr. Aslam Khaki said that religion is misinterpreted by certain elements for their vested interests, therefore they resist religiously-neutral textbooks, interfaith marriages, and policy reforms to prevent misuse of blasphemy laws, stop child marriages, and criminalize forced faith conversions. The government needs to invest in efforts to promote religious tolerance and religious freedom. Shafique Chaudhry said that religion is used as a tool for political gains which results in influencing mindsets and causing radicalization in society. The political parties need to introduce policy reforms to address the outstanding issues, and stop patronizing the elements involved in human rights violations against minority groups.
Renowned analyst, Zaigham Khan stated that the blasphemy laws, particularly Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code, are often misused to settle personal vendettas or to target minorities under the guise of religious outrage. These laws, in essence, contradict the spirit of Article 20 and result in undermining religious freedom and religious expression. He added that the government should take measures to ensure the realization of the religious freedom promised in the Constitution of Pakistan. An academic and researcher, Dr. A. H. Nayyar stated that the teachings of a specific religion in the learning material of compulsory subjects like Urdu, English, Social Studies, etc., results in violating the fundamental right guaranteed in Article 22(1) of the Constitution which clearly forbids forcing a student to study teachings of any religion that is not his own. He added that the violations are now being peddled using illogical and mindless interpretations of the concepts particularly religious education and religious instruction, which makes it necessary to approach the Supreme Court with a plea to lay down an unambiguous interpretation of Article 22(1) to the effect.
Human rights defender, Tahira Abdullah referred to her research reports (published 2015 and 2020) on Khyber Pakhtunkhwa public sector curricula and textbooks, documenting huge discrimination against Pakistani religious minorities and women, along with her recommendations. She cited her published work on issues pertaining to the blasphemy laws and reiterated urgent measures needed to address them. She recalled minority communities’ and civil society’s efforts to eliminate forced faith conversions, abductions and forced marriages of young Hindu and Christian girls – but noted that there was neither the required political will and commitment, nor the imperative critical mass needed to change our socio-cultural fabric. She reiterated that people’s struggle shall thus continue. A well-known rights activist, Nasreen Azhar said that the opening up the Kartarpur corridor and providing some protection to places of worship, as well as celebrating festivals of religious minorities are positive developments, however, solid measures need to be taken against those elements that use the blasphemy laws to promote their political agenda and promote greater fanaticism in society, as evident in the increased trend of public lynching by mob violence.
Human rights activist and columnist, Nabila Feroze Bhatti said that according to international human rights law, the consent of children before reaching the age of 18 years lies in the decision-making of parents on their behalf children concerning life decisions, be it choosing education or religion. She quoted an example from the pre-partition period in history where the Muslim league discouraged the forced religious conversion of children, which is still relevant. The forced faith conversion is not a criminal offense in Pakistan, though it is a severe human rights violation, effective policy actions need to be taken to address the coerced faith conversions of minority children, she demanded.
The speakers included; Peter Jacob, Farhat Ullah Babar, Dr. Aslam Khaki, Dr. A. H. Nayyar, Zaigham Khan, Shafique Chaudhry, Nasreen Azhar and Tahira Abdullah, and Nabila Feroze Bhatti, while Saroop Ijaz and Faaria Khan moderated the sessions, whereas Suneel Malik, Yousaf Benjamin, and Jayya Jaggi presented introduction to the panel discussions. The conference was well attended by human rights defenders, lawyers, academics and journalists that discussed the protections against misuse of blasphemy laws as well as safeguards against forced faith conversions. At this juncture, CSJ’s assessment report “Quest for Justice” was launched which is based on examining court proceedings, and assessing the level of compliance with Supreme Court orders. Moreover, CSJ’s award-winning documentary film ‘Hum Saya – Neighbor’ was screened that received the “Best Short Documentary on Human Rights’’ at the Venice Intercultural Film Festival, and highlighted the ordeal of the families of minor girls who had been forcibly converted in various areas of Punjab.