Census brings hope and fear for Pakistan's minorities
ISLAMABAD -- Marginalised, attacked and frequently accused of blasphemy, Pakistan's religious minorities are hoping the country's first census since 1998 will be a step towards greater political representation and rights.
In the congested Lahore district of Youhanabad, the largest Christian neighbourhood in Pakistan, activist Sajid Christopher said his community is looking forward to standing up and being counted.
"The census will benefit us in two ways," he told AFP. "Firstly we will be able to know about our exact population, as so far there has been only guesswork."
"Secondly, our representation in parliament will be according to our population, as our present representation in the democratic system is based on the census of 1981," he said.
Census a 'powerful tool'
Fast-growing Pakistan is the sixth most populous country in the world, with an estimated 200 million people, but has not held a census for almost two decades, despite a constitutional requirement for one every decade.
The count was delayed for years by politicians squabbling over the potential implications.
Estimates on minority groups are approximate and disputed, ranging from 2 million to 10 million for Christians and 2.5 million to 4.5 million for Hindus.
Christopher's views were echoed by Nancy Stiegler, an advisor for the UN Population Fund who called the census a "powerful tool for planning" not only for minorities "but all the population of Pakistan".
This desire for more accurate data goes to the heart of the controversy surrounding the census: that it will redraw political boundaries and force a redistribution of resources.
The census took place in two phases: March 15 to April 15 and April 25 to May 25. Results are expected by the end of July.
Fear of being outed
The process is not without complications -- and not all religious minorities are eager to make themselves known.
Pakistan's Ahmadis, a minority Islamic sect declared non-Muslims by law for their belief in a prophet after Muhammad (PBUH), number an estimated 500,000 and are victims of persecution and violence.
Banned from even calling themselves Muslim, they find themselves in a dangerous position when census officials arrive asking them to declare their religion.
When a Balochistan resident identified himself as Ahmadi to Pakistani census officials, they chased him out of the mosque where they had gathered families to be counted, Saleemuddin, a spokesman for the community, told AFP, without identifying the man for safety reasons.
In other cases, he said, census officials simply assume the Ahmadis are Muslim because their names are indistinguishable from those of the general population and tick the Muslim box on their behalf. It is a potentially dangerous move.
Under Pakistan's laws, "If I declare myself a Muslim ... I can be imprisoned for three years," Saleemuddin said.
Even those groups keen for recognition are wary, their suspicion fuelled by bitter experiences that run deep among Pakistan's minorities.
Citizens can declare themselves to be Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Ahmadi or "other".
But Hindu rights activist Kapil Dev accused the government of divisiveness by having a caste option in the census, when the community wants to be recorded as one entity.
Radesh Singh Tony went to court in the northwestern city of Peshawar because there was no mention of Sikhism on the form.
The court ruled in the activist's favour, ordering the government to include Sikhs -- but the count had already begun, and Radesh was not optimistic.
"The government has a record of ignoring court orders," he told AFP.
And though Christopher is confident, many of his fellow Christians argue that even if they are accurately counted, it will change nothing until Pakistan's attitude towards non-Muslims improves.
"Muslims can't see a Christian progress or get a good education and a good job -- this is a fact," said Pervaiz Jazbi, a 37-year-old Christian shopkeeper in Islamabad.
"The element of discrimination is always there," agreed Christian student Sania Nishtar.
Saleemuddin said the Ahmadi man who fled the Balochistan mosque became the target of a hate campaign and had been barred even from buying food.
"He fled with his family," Saleemuddin told AFP. "He has been living in hiding ever since."