'Historic' moment for religious freedom in Pakistan

Pakistani women grieve over the coffins of their relatives, who were killed in a suicide attack on a church, in Peshawar, Pakistan, 22 September 2013.(AP)

The Chief Justice of Pakistan has ordered the formation of a National Council for Minority Rights, which has been welcomed by human rights organisations amid growing concerns about the treatment of minority groups across the country.

Minority faith groups, including Christians, are frequently the victims of persecution, and the misuse of the blasphemy laws in particular has been blamed for increasing inter-religious tensions across the country.

Pakistan was also recently named the sixth most violent place for Christians to live by leading persecution charity Open Doors. The World Watch List notes that "there is a high degree of impunity regarding acts of violence against Christians" in Pakistan, and forced conversions are not unusual.

81 people, including over 3 dozen children, were killed in a suicide bombing on 22 September last year outside All Saints Church in Peshawar diocese. Islamic extremist group TTP Jundullah, which is linked to the Taliban, claimed responsibility for the violence: "They are the enemies of Islam, therefore we target them," said the group's spokesman, Ahmed Marwat.

"We will continue our attacks on non-Muslims on Pakistani land."

The bombing signified the deadliest attack on Christians in Pakistan's history, and it was during a case looking at this attack that CJP Tassaduq Hussain Jillan announced his decision to establish a council to protect the rights of minority groups and "ensure religious harmony".

CLAAS UK, which works for the religious freedom of Christians in Pakistan, has labelled it "an historic day", noting that "Christians and other religious minorities have had a long standing demand to set up an independent and autonomous commission for minorities' rights, to protect minorities' rights, but until now none of the governments paid any attention".

The Chief Justice reportedly began his announcement by stating: "All mankind
is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety (taqwa) and good action".

He then added that inciting religious hate via social media will be criminalised under the new order, and protections for children who suffer for their faith at school will also be extended.

Jillan also apologised for the failure of the government to uphold protections in the past, after the Singh Hindu community raised six recent incidents during which their places of worship were attacked.

Coordinator of CLAAS UK, Nasir Saeed, has welcomed the CJP's decision, but warned that there is still some work to be done before minority faith groups are safe to worship freely in Pakistan.

"Christians in Pakistan have been demanding an independent and autonomous commission for minorities' rights, for a long time, having been increasingly marginalised from society and in need of a
body that can protect them," Saeed said in a statement released today.

"I hope that the Pakistani government will not only listen to the recommendations, but that that the decision will also cause it to open its eyes to the suffering of minorities and accept that more needs to
be done to ensure that those who had such an influential role in creating Pakistan are afforded the rights they deserve, and are able to live in the country without fear of persecution."

He continued: "Extremism is on the rise and especially when Blasphemy laws are still on the statute book. Keeping in view the government's treatment of minorities, it is difficult to say whether government will take interest immediately implement the order. In 2012 President Asif Ali Zardari signed a bill to form a independent and powerful National Commission for Human Rights Bill, but that is still pending.

"We can only hope that after such clear and cogent instructions from the Chief Justice, the government of Pakistan takes positive steps towards making minorities feel secure in their country."