ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan’s cabinet has declined to include a religious sect that rights group says suffers widespread persecution in a newly formed commission for minorities, after opposition from conservatives in the government, officials said on Thursday.
The cabinet set up the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) on Tuesday to oversee their concerns in Muslim-majority Pakistan, but Ahmadis, who are categorised as non-Muslim in the constitution, were not included.
Ahmadis consider themselves to be Muslims in contradiction to the constitution, to the anger of many in Pakistan. Their exclusion from the commission deprives them of a voice and the status and protection it would likely confer.
“The Ahmadi community must not be included in the NCM, given the religious and historical sensitivity of the issue,” the Ministry of Religious Affairs said in a note on the issue, seen by Reuters.
Ahmadis recognise Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who founded the sect in British-ruled India in 1889, as a “subordinate prophet”, which mainstream Muslims see as a breach of the Islamic tenet that the Prophet Mohammad was God’s last direct messenger.
The sect has up to 20 million followers worldwide with about half a million in Pakistan, community leaders say, though other estimates have put the number in Pakistan higher, with many hiding their identity fearing persecution.
State Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Ali Muhammad Khan has been among the most vocal opponents of Ahmadi inclusion in the new commission, referring to them on social media as agents of chaos.
“If they want to avail constitutional rights they must accept the constitution first,” Khan told Reuters in a text message.
“The Pakistani constitution considers them non-Muslims.”
Khan defended a now-deleted Twitter post in which he said: “There is only one punishment for insulting the Prophet - chopping off the head”.
He stressed he believed in “legal procedures and court proceedings” for anyone accused of blasphemy and said Twitter had asked him to delete the post.
Ahmadis, probably more than members of other minorities, find themselves facing accusations of blasphemy, which in Pakistan can carry the death penalty.
A Hindu has been nominated as chairman of the commission which also has representatives of the Christian, Sikh, Zoroastrian and Kalash communities. Government officials and the head of the Council of Islamic Ideology are also members.
The U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom, a bipartisan U.S. federal government body, said in a report this year that Pakistan’s Ahmadis “continued to face severe persecution from authorities as well as societal harassment due to their beliefs, with both the authorities and mobs targeting their houses of worship”.
It recommended that the U.S. government designate Pakistan a country of particular concern for engaging in “systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom”.
Minister of Information Shibli Faraz defended the government’s handling of the commission for minorities and said the rights of all were fully respected.
“Every country has the sovereign right to make judgements according to its ground realities,” Faraz said in a statement sent to Reuters.
A representative of the Ahmadi community, Usman Ahmad, said they were used to exclusion but rejected as a “complete myth” the assertion that Ahmadis did not accept the constitution.
He said many people disagreed with parts of the constitution but that did not exclude them from rights conferred under it.
But Ahmad said they have never accepted being classified as non-Muslims, which would rule out joining the commission anyway.
“We’ve never joined such commissions that require us to accept our non-Muslim status,” Ahmad told Reuters.
Reporting by Gibran Peshimam; Editing by Robert Birsel