The EU must act as Pakistan’s Foreign Minister denies persecution of religious minorities

During a visit to Europe to sign the Strategic Engagement Plan (SEP) between the European Union (EU) and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, the Pakistani Foreign Ministers, made some surprising declarations that may raise eyebrows.

Indeed, the Foreign Minister dismissed the accusations made by the international community regarding the persecution of Christian minorities in the country. He claimed that although persecution cases do occur, those only represent ‘individual incidents’ comparable to knife attacks in the United Kingdom. He went on claiming that such accusations are an example of the West trying to ‘paint Pakistan in a particular way’ in order to serve its own interests.

For years, reports from international organisations, civil societies and, more recently, from Members of the European Parliament have turned their attention to the situation of religious minorities in Pakistan, who are victims of direct and indirect discrimination at all levels of their life.

When asked about these reports, Mr. Qureshi answered: “You can’t say this is a trend, no. Individual incidents can be quoted anywhere, [of] minorities being mistreated here, in Europe, in Britain.” He concluded by stating: “But I can assure you that Christians are very welcome. The Christian community in Pakistan is very positive and a very responsible community. We respect them and we want them to be there. We will do everything possible to protect them and we are.”

The case of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman who was accused of blasphemy, imprisoned for seven years and sentenced to death has done much to draw international attention to the plight of religious minorities in Pakistan. The conviction was ultimately overturned thanks to international pressure and Mrs. Bibi was able to seek asylum in Canada. This case also sparked international outcry regarding the misuse of blasphemy laws in Pakistan, which have been disproportionately used to persecute religious and minority communities. ‘Nobody wants any law to be misused and we are against misuse of anything,’ Qureshi said of the blasphemy law. Yet, Pakistani blasphemy laws are the most controversial ones in the world. They do not clearly define blasphemy, they lack the necessary safeguards against abuse, and have weak evidentiary standards. People can be convicted of blasphemy for acts as minor as drinking water from a well reserved for Muslims, as in Bibi’s case.

Blasphemy laws are not the only way to persecute religious minorities. Discrimination is manifested in various forms of targeted violence, including mass murders, extrajudicial killings, abductions, forced marriage and forced conversion to Islam. What is more, these acts of violence often go unpunished as there is a general unwillingness from the side of the authorities to get involved.

Recently, the trafficking of both Christian and Muslim Pakistani women married to men in China has been brought out to the open. The Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) found that over 150 Pakistani women were taken to China under false pretences, a crime usually associated with human trafficking. Exactly what happens to these women is unknown, but they have been reported to be at high risk of sexual slavery by the NGO Human Rights Watch. Mr. Qureshi declared once again that these serious accusations are unfounded and that investigations by both China and Pakistan found ‘the stories had no truth to them.’

The blatant denial by the Pakistani Foreign Minister of existing cases of persecution of religious minorities, not only as ‘individual incidents’ but as a trend in his country, is striking and should be of concern to the EU.

The EU and Pakistan have a long-standing relationship which has been strengthened by the newly signed SEP based on the cooperation between the two parties in the areas of, inter alia, democracy, rule of law, good governance, and human rights. “Enhancing intercultural and inter-faith dialogue and understanding to promote tolerance and harmony, in particular through a mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge, people-to-people contacts and education” are among the commitments Pakistan and the EU made in this new partnership. The EU also committed to support Pakistan in the implementation of international human rights documents. In light of this, protection of religious minorities and freedom of religion, which is a human right protected by international conventions, should come as a priority in any type of relationship between the two States.

Pakistan’s indifference to, and even denial of, religiously motivated acts of violence against members of the religious minorities certainly jeopardises the proper implementation of the action plan. As a leader in the promotion of human rights, the EU has the moral and legal duty, based on its commitments in the SEP, to condemn the words of the Foreign Ministers and to take actions to protect persecuted minorities in Pakistan.

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