Freedom of religion or belief concerns in Pakistan range from discrimination in everyday social or economic transactions to the targeted killing of people on the basis of their religion. This takes place in a context of growing insecurity, impunity and division along religious lines.

A country hard-pressed on all sides

Pakistan has the sixth largest population in the world, around 190 million people.  It is a country facing many serious challenges simultaneously.  These include high poverty levels, unemployment and adult illiteracy, an economic crisis, frequent widespread flooding, corruption, a weak justice system, and an energy shortage that paralyses homes and businesses for hours every day.  The nation’s greatest challenge is the spread of religious extremism and almost daily acts of terrorism.  It is a pivotal country in the global ‘war on terror’ and tens of thousands of Pakistanis have been killed since that ‘war’ began.

Religious identity

Pakistan is a country in which religion has long been connected to national identity, ever since it was founded as a ‘homeland for Muslims’ in 1947, following the partition of India.  Roughly 96% of its inhabitants are Muslim, which means it has the third largest Muslim population globally.  The majority of Pakistani Muslims follow the Sunni tradition, while around 10-15% are Shi’a Muslims.  The Ahmadiyya Muslim community is numbered at around 400,000 by the government, but ten times that figure by its own estimate.  Official figures estimate Christians and Hindus at a total of no more than 1.5-2% each, while other minorities such as Sikhs, Parsis, Buddhists, Baha’is, and the Kalesh people make up less than 1%.  The majority of the Pakistani Christian community is spread throughout the central Punjab province, while Christians in other provinces are usually found in urban areas.  Most of Pakistan’s Hindu community lives in the southern province of Sindh.

The promotion of hate and intolerance

Officially, religious minorities are protected by law but, in reality, persecution and discrimination are very common.  One of the main root causes of this is hate speech.  Leaders of influence, from grassroots religious clerics to federal ministers, have been known to misuse their freedom of expression to incite violence against non-Muslim minorities or minority Muslim sects.  In Pakistan, an Islamic cleric is often revered as an unquestionable source of truth.  The motives for inciting violence vary from case to case, but frequently include personal gain.  There is little chance of facing repercussions for inciting violence and minorities are very easy targets.  

Religiously-motivated violence

One of the groups most commonly targeted is the Ahmadiyya Muslims.  Ahmadis consider themselves to be Muslims but have been declared non-Muslims by Pakistan’s constitution.  There has been a major increase in sectarian violence carried out against Shia Muslims, including large-scale suicide bombings in Shia neighbourhoods.  At least 200 people died in such attacks in the city of Quetta in the first two months of 2013, most of them being Shias.  Christians and Hindus are also the target of brutal aggression, discrimination and hate speech.

The problem with Pakistan’s textbooks

Pakistan has a large numbers of Islamic schools, or madrassas.  Some of these are known to promote violent extremism, but it is actually the national curriculum which poses a bigger problem, because it affects the majority of people.  Since reform in the 1980s, government teaching materials have included prejudiced and sometime hate-filled messages against some religious minorities, while promoting Islam through nearly all subjects.  This has all added to the impression that non-Muslims are second-class citizens, as well as creating the kind of intolerance that allows religiously-motivated violence to flourish.

Being non-Muslim and female

The abduction, forced marriage and forcible conversion of Christian and Hindu women and girls has increased in frequency in recent years, with perpetrators emboldened by the relatively low likelihood of conviction.  Women and girls from ‘low’ caste Hindu communities are particularly at risk.  A recent report found that illiteracy and poverty levels among Hindu and Christian women were worse than those in the majority community.

Dangerous laws

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and provisions targeting Ahmadis are of great concern and there is little room to debate reform at the moment.  Sections 298B and C of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) make basic Islamic practices a crime when practised by Ahmadis.  Violent social prejudice against this group is legitimised by the state’s clear anti-Ahmadiyya stance expressed in these provisions.  The blasphemy laws (Section 295, PPC) make it a criminal act to insult another’s religion.  The most dangerous parts are sections B and C, which address defilement of the Qur’an and insults against the Prophet Mohammed.  Section C, which ignores the question of intent, carries a compulsory death penalty.  These laws are badly defined and wide open to misuse.  Little evidence is required so false accusations are common, being used to settle personal scores, target religious minorities or further extremist agendas.  Two decades of misuse of the blasphemy laws have resulted in a situation where even the mention of a blasphemy accusation now easily incites violence if publicised locally.    The majority of accusations are made against Muslims, but when non-Muslims are accused, their situation means it is more likely that their entire community will be attacked.  This was the case in Badami Bagh, Lahore, in March 2013, when nearly 300 Christian homes were looted and burnt.

CSW’s work

We continue to raise concerns about individual cases and the blasphemy laws in our advocacy work, but we are increasingly focusing on root cause issues such as hate speech and bias in the education system, adding our voice to others within the country.  This includes engaging with those responsible for providing aid to Pakistan, from the UK and the EU, about the risk of unintentionally funding biased education material.

CSW always addresses freedom of religion or belief while recognising the broader national context, and recently this has meant engaging with EU officials on trade-related discussions.  There is great potential to offer a much-needed boost to Pakistan’s economy, while also ensuring that key human rights conditions are satisfied.

Many of the issues in Pakistan also occur in other part of South Asia, so CSW is facilitating relationships between activists across the region.  This can be a way of establishing support networks as well as exchanging best practice and lessons learnt, to enrich one another’s work.  We have also hosted delegations from Pakistan at the EU and UN, most recently in advance of Pakistan’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in Geneva, a pivotal time to engage.

Fast facts

  • Pakistan became an independent nation in 1947, as a homeland for Muslims living in India
  • Pakistan shares borders with Afghanistan, Iran, India and China
  • The 2013 elections marked Pakistan’s first ever handover from one elected government to another, without a military coup
  • Pakistan’s first Law Minister was a Hindu, its fourth Chief Justice was a Christian and its only Nobel Prize winner was an Ahmadi
  • The white strip on Pakistan’s flag represents its non-Muslim citizens
  • The languages of Pakistan include Urdu (national language), English, Punjabi, Pashto, Sindhi, Balochi, and Saraiki


1947: 14 August – State of East and West Pakistan formed after partition of India

1956: Pakistan adopts a constitution and becomes an Islamic Republic

1971: East Pakistan becomes Bangladesh after civil war

1974: Ahmadiyya community declared non-Muslim under the constitution

1982 and 1986: Military dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq adds sections 295 B and C to the law books, finalising the blasphemy laws we know today

1991: Islamic Shari‘a law becomes part of Pakistan’s legal code

2002: Limitations on non-Muslim votes lifted as ‘joint electorate’ restored

2011: Blasphemy-related assassinations of Punjab Governor, Salmaan Taseer, and Minorities Minister, Shahbaz Bhatti

2013: First ever successful transfer of power from one elected government to another

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