Item 8: Prevention of discrimination against and the protection of minorities.
Palais des Nations, Geneva
Franciscans International and Dominicans for Justice and Peace remain concerned about discrimination and persecution on the basis of religion. We consider that the problem of religious intolerance is growing and is at the root of a number of conflicts and ongoing violence in many parts of the world. Religious minorities are increasingly the target of bigotry, which is often instigated by extremist forces.
In his report to the UN Commission on Human Rights (E/CN.4/1999/58), the Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance Mr. Abdelfattah Amor said that prevention could be ensured mainly through the establishment of a culture of tolerance, notably through education. He added that it is essential that special attention be given to traditional «mandate fulfillment» activities, namely, in most cases, follow-up action on human rights violations. However, in countries where religious discrimination permeates the laws and institutions including the educational system, where religious discrimination is systemic and endemic to every aspect of life for minorities, what is required is effective and concerted action on the part of the international community and the governments concerned to remedy the situation.
We have previously expressed concern about the situation of religious minorities in Pakistan. Our joint paper (E/CN.4/1999/NGO/31) presented jointly with the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs of the World Council of Churches and with organizations in Pakistan dealt mainly with the issues of the Blasphemy Laws and the Separate Electorates in Pakistan.
We believe that the «Blasphemy Laws» create division and conflict between different religious groups with tragic results in some cases. We consider that this law is in conflict with the 1992 Declaration of the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, and other human rights treaties. Article 1 of the Declaration states: «States shall protect the existence and the national, cultural, religious and linguistic identity of minorities within their respective territories and shall encourage conditions for promotion of that identity». We do not see separation and segregation as protective.
The «Blasphemy Law» in its present form has become a source of victimization and persecution of the minorities in the country. Minorities are suffering all forms of humiliation through false accusations under the Law. The definition of the term blasphemy is vague yet it carries a mandatory death sentence. Also there are serious problems with the mechanisms to implement this Law. In the present climate of hate, intolerance and violence in Pakistan, Blasphemy Laws have become a major tool in the hands of extremist elements to settle personal scores against religious minorities, particularly the Christians.
In a recent development the Prime Minister of Pakistan has approved procedural changes in the Blasphemy laws which are presently in draft stage. Under the changes, in order for the police to file cases, make arrests and conduct criminal investigations under the Blasphemy Laws, a six-member committee of inquiry would verify through a preliminary investigation that grounds for a case exist. The committee would be composed of: two noted religious leaders from the Christian community and two from the Muslim community, the deputy commissioner and senior police superintendent of the district. According to Christian leaders in Pakistan, this is a step in the right direction.
The system of separate electorate effectively denies religious minorities in the country, the fundamental right of universal adult franchise. Under the system, a quota of seats are reserved for non-Muslims in the National and Provincial legislatures. Non-Muslim voters can only vote for non-Muslim candidates contesting the reserved seats and non-Muslim voters cannot vote for Muslim candidates in the general elections. This policy of discrimination among voters on ground of religion has cut off the non-Muslim citizens of Pakistan from the main stream of national political life. It has denied to them the right to directly participate in the national decision making processes as well as in the framing of national economic, social and cultural policies. Similar segregation has also been introduced at the level of local bodies. Our partners in Pakistan have recommended that the government of Pakistan abolish the system of separate electorate on the grounds that it is discriminatory in nature and promotes divisions in the society on the basis of religion.
We have also expressed concern about the situation of religious minorities and the increase in violence against them in India. The Christian minority consists of 2.5% of India’s population. Since 1998, there have been reports of violent attacks against them, which had spread throughout India to more than twenty-five states. At least one hundred attacks on Christian groups had been reported including the rape of nuns, the killing of a Franciscan nun and the burning of bibles, In the state of Bihar, there were also the beheading of a Catholic priest and the public humiliation of the headmaster of a Catholic school.
In a shocking incident, an Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons aged 10 and 8 were burned to death in their jeep seven months ago. He had been working with leprosy patients in India for more than 30 years and was the Secretary Treasurer of the Evangelical Missionary Society of Mayurbhanj. The mob, which attacked and surrounded his jeep, was estimated to be between 50 and 100 people. The incident focused attention on the persecution of Christians in India, particularly in the tribal belt, which goes from Gujarat in the west to Orissa in the east. Following the incident, Christian leaders said that they were appalled at the inaction of the authorities, the connivance of the police and the reluctance of state governments to take steps to protect Christians and their property. In a recent development, two weeks ago a 250-page report on the murder of Staines and his two sons was submitted to India’s Parliament.
In the State of Gujurart, there had been more than thirty attacks on Christians by Hindu Extremist groups. The violence had occurred mostly in the north and west, where Hindu extremist nationalist groups have broader support. The violence seems to have been on three fronts: direct violence against the clergy; attacks on evangelists and disruption of prayer meetings; and, pressure on Christian associations including schools, colleges, hospitals and churches, from municipal authorities regarding land permits and charges of encroachment.