Khyber Pakhtunkhwa takes concrete steps to protect minorities

By Ashfaq Yusufzai

Sikhs sweep the floor at the historic Bhi Beba Singh temple in Peshawar March 29. The temple, which shut down in 1947, re-opened that day for worship. [Shahbaz Butt]

Sikhs sweep the floor at the historic Bhi Beba Singh temple in Peshawar March 29. The temple, which shut down in 1947, re-opened that day for worship. [Shahbaz Butt]

PESHAWAR -- The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) government is taking concrete steps to protect temples, churches and gurdwaras (Sikh temples) from Taliban attacks and to rebuild those that militants destroyed.

The programme seeks to send a message to militants that the KP government stands by minorities and will reconstruct every worship place damaged by militants.

"The provincial government has allocated Rs. 10m (US$ 100,000) [in the coming fiscal year] for the renovation of places of worship for Sikhs, Hindus and Christians," KP Information Minister Mushtaq Ahmed Ghani told Central Asia Online.

"We have already deployed police to worship places, which has improved security greatly," he said.

"The government is determined at any cost to foil the Taliban's attempts to damage properties and to prevent [worshipers] from visiting their sacred places," he said.

The move aims to safeguard the rights of minorities, promote religious harmony and raise living standards, he said.

"Stipends, textbooks and free uniforms also will be provided to schoolchildren from minority communities," Ghani said.

The KP government has made allocations for the coming fiscal year to complete projects for the welfare of minorities initiated in the 2015-2016 fiscal year, he said.

"The budget also includes special financial packages particularly for dowries, healthcare assistance, construction of residential colonies, worship places and protection walls around minorities' graveyards, special packages for the Kalash community, security arrangements for religious places of minorities, and the construction of a temple in Karak," Ghani said.

'Taliban bring Islam into disrepute'

"Taliban militants have been targeting temples, gurdwaras and churches as part of their agenda to terrorise minorities," Brig. (ret.) Mehmood Shah of Peshawar, former security secretary for the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), told Central Asia Online.

"Pakistan is a hospitable country for minorities, and only a handful of militants want to pursue their nefarious agenda," he said.

"The government's support has emboldened minorities to defy militants' threats and continue their prayers," he said.

Over the years, intolerant militants have attacked worship places of all religions in KP, including Hindu temples in Peshawar and an imambargah in Mansehra District.

"Taliban militants have brought into disrepute the religion of Islam, which preaches peace, brotherhood and coherence among humanity," said Ikramullah Khan, a Peshawar religious scholar.

Blowing up shrines and worship places of any religion is a disservice to Islam, he said.

"Our prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) instructed his followers to respect other religions and provide worshipers security," he told Central Asia Online. "But the Taliban embrace violence to commit killings and to destroy the sacred buildings of minorities."

Government support gives minorities confidence

Militants target minorities, who comprise about 3.7% of Pakistan's population of 180m, but these communities continue to pray fearlessly, KP Auqaf (Religious Endowments), Hajj, Minority and Religious Affairs Minister Habib ur Rahman told Central Asia Online.

"The government has deployed special security for minorities so they can come and go to their worship places without any fear," he said.

More than 15,000 Sikhs and more than 47,000 Hindus have been living for decades in various areas of KP -- including Peshawar, Buner, Mardan, Nowshera, Swat, Lakki Marwat and Dera Ismail Khan -- and their way of life is not very different from that of Pashtuns.

The Hindu community was delighted when the KP government re-opened the Goraknath Temple in Peshawar in April after it had remained closed for 60 years over an ownership issue.

All Pakistan Hindu Rights Movement Chairman Haroon Sarab Dayal said he appreciates the KP government's practical measures to ensure freedom of religion in society.

"We strongly condemn the militants for damaging shrines, mosques, churches and other places of worship," he said.

In September 2013, twin suicide bombings at the All Saints Church in Peshawar killed about 100 people, including women and children, but the devastating attack did not stop Christians from worshiping.

Amar Jeet Singh, who left Khyber Agency two years ago after threats by militants, said he now feels happy and safe living in Peshawar.

"People are very friendly. There is full security in churches, and we pray regularly after enhanced security by the government," he told Central Asia Online.

"Militants have been trying to incite minorities with violence, but we will pursue the policy of non-violence and brotherhood for the sake of peace," he said.

"Two years ago, many members of our [Sikh community] families were weighing options for asylum abroad because of threats by militants, but now the situation has changed totally, and they have shelved their plans to leave the country," he said.

"The government has been sponsoring and participating in our religious festivities, which provides a deep sense of security in our community," he said.

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