ISLAMABAD-Speakers on Saturday stressed forming an independent national commission for protection of the rights of the religious minorities.

As part of its ongoing work on freedom of religion or belief, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) held a meeting of the National Interfaith Working Group, attended by representatives of the Christian, Hindu, Ahmadiyya, Sikh, Ismaili, Shia Hazara and Baha’i communities.

Participants demanded that an effective, independent national commission for religious minorities be set up in the spirit of the 2014 Supreme Court (Justice Jillani) judgement. They also agreed that the official census data on minorities should be released as soon as possible.

HRCP Secretary-General Harris Khalique said that social radicalisation was an increasingly grave concern.

Participants discussed a range of issues, from discrimination against the Zikri community in Makran and the vulnerability of the Sikh community in Peshawar to demographic manipulation in Gilgit-Baltistan and increasing divisions within and across religious minorities.

Representatives of the Ahmadiyya community pointed out that they were barely ascribed equal rights as citizens, much less rights as a ‘minority’.

Dr Khalid Masood, former chair of the Council of Islamic Ideology, said that it was critical to respect religious diversity and view religious communities as they viewed themselves.

Jennifer Jag Jiwan of the Christian Study Centre said that the proposed national commission should attempt to reform the discourse on religious minorities not only between the state and its citizens, but also among citizens to counter internalised bias.

Former Senator Afrasiab Khattak said that only a democratic solution would help resolve the increasing pressure on vulnerable groups such as religious minorities.

Discussing the bottlenecks in the implementation of the Jillani judgement, former Senator Farhatullah Babar said that, under Article 146 of the Constitution, the government could legislate on religious minorities even if it were a devolved subject.

Pakistan’s international human rights commitments also obligated the government to do so.

Veteran journalist Ghazi Salahuddin concluded the meeting, saying that an independent media was critical to protecting the rights of religious minorities.