The Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) organized a conference in Islamabad on challenge of implementing the Article 20 (freedom of religion) of the national constitution to commemorate the ninth anniversary of the landmark judgment on minorities’ rights.
Speaking on the occasion, speakers raised concerns over the role of the federal and provincial governments to address human rights violations. They called upon the policymakers to take concrete measures to protect religious freedom and minorities’ rights in accordance with the judgment, issued by then Chief Justice of Pakistan Justice Tassaduq Hussain Jillani in 2014.
Pakistan People’s Party leader Farhatullah Babar said that the state structure promotes biases on the grounds of religion which reflects in discriminatory provisions in the constitution which causes inequality of rights among majority and minority citizens. “It is disappointing that our governments have failed to adhere to court judgment regarding minorities’ rights,” he said, adding the government needs to pass a bill to establish a statutory commission for minorities’ rights without further delay.
Centre for Social Justice Executive Director Peter Jacob said that the level of compliance with the court orders has not been improved from 25% in the past nine years. He said that the apex court issued over 89 subsequent orders besides the seven original orders passed in 2014. However, all the orders remained unimplemented for the lack of policy actions, he said.
He said that the judgment, if implemented, has the potential to improve the overall governance, and address institutional dysfunction. Dr Aslam Khaki said that religion was misinterpreted by certain elements for their vested interests. Therefore, he said that they resist religiously-neutral textbooks, interfaith marriages, and policy reforms to prevent misuse of laws, stop child marriages, and criminalize forced faith conversions.
He said that the government needs to invest in efforts to promote religious tolerance and religious freedom. Shafique Chaudhry said that religion was used as a tool for political gains which results in influencing mindsets and causing radicalization in the society. He said that 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.
Analyst Zaigham Khan stated that some laws, particularly Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code, were often misused to settle personal vendettas or to target minorities or opponents under the guise of religious outrage. He said that these laws, in essence, contradict the spirit of Article 20 and result in undermining religious freedom and religious expression. He said that the government should take measures to ensure the realization of the religious freedom promised in the constitution.
CSJ launches ‘Quest for Justice’ that is based on examining court proceedings, and assessing level of compliance with Supreme Court orders
Academic and researcher Dr AH Nayyar said 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 the Article 22(1) of the constitution which clearly forbids forcing a student to study teachings of any religion that was not his own.
He said that the violations were now being peddled using illogical and mindless interpretations of the concepts, 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. Along with her recommendations, human rights activist Tahira Abdullah referred to her research reports on Khyber Pakhtunkhwa public sector curricula and textbooks, documenting huge discrimination against minorities and women.
She cited her published work on issues pertaining to the specific laws and reiterated urgent measures needed to address them. She recalled civil society and the minorities’ 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 socio-cultural fabric.
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 were positive developments, however, solid measures need to be taken against those elements that use the specific laws to promote their political agenda and promote greater fanaticism in the society, as evident in the increased trend of public lynching by mob violence.
Award-winning documentary film ‘Hum Saya’ highlights ordeal of families of minor girls who had been forcibly converted in various areas of Punjab
Activist and columnist Nabila Feroze Bhatti said that the consent of children before reaching the age of 18 years lies in the decision-making of parents on their behalf, 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.
She said that the forced faith conversion was a criminal offense in Pakistan, though it was a severe human rights violation. She suggested effective policy actions to address the forced faith conversions of minority children. 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 the laws as well as safeguards against forced faith conversions. At this juncture, CSJ’s assessment report “Quest for Justice” was launched that is based on examining court proceedings, and assessing the level of compliance with the 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.