New Age Islam
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Islamic Society ( 25 Feb 2013, NewAgeIslam.Com)

Comment | Comment

Freedom of Religion and Belief in Pakistan





By Rehman Anwer

February 26, 2013

Owing to the contemporary climate of extremism in Pakistan, the key is to bring various faith communities together and make collective efforts to foster peace and stability

Faith Matters, a conflict resolution and interfaith organisation, has developed a unique programme to promote harmonious relationships between the Muslim and Christian communities based in Pakistan through the training and development of young people from both faith communities.

Based in London, with operations in the Middle East and Pakistan, Faith Matters is a not-for-profit organisation that aims to tackle extremism in its many forms, from far-right groups like the English Defence League to groups within the Muslim community involved in violence and hate crime. In November 2012, it launched a new programme called ‘Musawaat’ (Equality), aimed at promoting interfaith harmony and the fundamental right of the freedom of religion and belief in Pakistan. As part of this, the organisation is carrying out a series of awareness raising workshops to train young people on basic ideas of conflict resolution, interfaith dialogue, identity and fundamental human rights. The organisation’s strategy is to work with grass roots civil society organisations to arrange training workshops in areas with sizeable Christian communities, and areas where tensions and violent conflict have been observed in the past. These areas include Faisalabad, Gujranwala, Multan and their surrounding regions. The project also involves sending mass SMS messages — written by young people in the workshops — promoting unity, peace and interfaith harmony to popularise the ideas of pluralism and peaceful coexistence in Pakistan. Their target is to send 30 million SMS messages. The project’s end goal is to promote peace and to counter extremist narratives that promote sectarianism and religious strife.

Issues of freedom of religion, tolerance, and mutual understanding have a long history, not only in religious traditions but also in international treaties and declarations of rights. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights — both of which Pakistan has signed and ratified — uphold freedom of belief, and protect both freedom of thought on all matters, and the freedom to manifest religion and belief individually or with others, in public or in private.

In a country like Pakistan, where religious convictions are deeply and intensely held and belief have a significant impact on the lives of communities, it is important to create awareness about freedom of religion and the underlying philosophy of tolerance, interfaith harmony, and equality.

Owing to the contemporary climate of extremism in Pakistan, the key is to bring various faith communities together and make collective efforts to foster peace and stability. Numerous efforts are being made by civil society organisations in Pakistan to achieve this objective, but there also needs to be a consistent campaign across the country to promote a change in perceptions toward other religious groups. This change is necessary in order to remove societal barriers for religious diversity and national harmony, and to work against the sources of violence and strife in society.

The multi-faceted approach of the Musawaat project — working with youth groups, community radio stations, and schools situated in far-off under-developed areas of Punjab including Gojra and Sangla Hill — is actually trying to deal with these challenges at a grass roots level. Some of these areas have unfortunately faced violent extremism in the recent past, purely based on inter-religious conflicts. In Faisalabad, pastor Rashid Emmanuel and his brother Sajjad were murdered while leaving a court hearing in 2010, shot dead by an unidentified young gunman. They had been charged and arrested for distributing ‘blasphemous anti-Islamic material’, charges their supporters had suggested were trumped up and faked. In 2009, in the village of Gojra, a violent mob torched nearly 50 houses in the predominantly Christian neighbourhood, leading to the deaths of eight Christians. In 2005, some 500 Christian families were forced to leave Sangla Hill (a small town near Faisalabad), noticing violent vitriolic rhetoric from the local mosque’s loudspeakers after a young Christian man had been accused of burning copies of the Holy Quran. They were right to do so; the angry mob burnt down three churches, a convent, a missionary school, a girls’ hostel, and a pastor’s house. These conflicts represent a small fraction of the violence, sectarianism, and religious strife suffered by many members of religious communities throughout Pakistan, driven by suspicion, hostility, and misunderstanding.

Faith Matters believes that this conflict is avoidable, and that, in order to avoid interreligious tensions and to reduce the communication and societal barriers between the members of Muslim and Christian communities in Pakistan, it is extremely important that concepts of human rights, conflict resolution and interfaith harmony should be promoted. By working with young people from Muslim and Christian communities, and alongside other civil society organisations in Pakistan, the Musawaat initiative is trying to promote fundamental human rights like freedom of religion and belief in Pakistan, for every citizen in the country, and to encourage peace. In doing so, it is helping Pakistani civil society organisations, and Pakistani young people, to build for themselves a stable, prosperous, tolerant, and peaceful Pakistan.

Rehman Anwer works as a Project Manager for a UK-based NGO, Faith Matters, and is focused on the organisation’s Pakistan chapter. He is actively engaged in managing the operations of a wide range of interfaith, countering extremism and developmental projects in Pakistan