Religious minorities in Pakistan like Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Ahmedis and Hazara continue to face violent attacks, a damning report by an independent watchdog Monday said and criticised the state for failing to tackle the issue of their persecution.
The Human Rights Commission at the launch of its annual report, State of Human Rights in 2017 dedicated to the late activist Asma Jahangir says people continue to disappear in Pakistan, sometimes because they criticise the country's powerful military or because they advocate better relations with neighbouring India.
Jahangir, who was fierce advocate of human rights died in February.
The commission also underscored the rising incidence of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings and the extension of the jurisdiction of military courts.
"False accusations of blasphemy and the ensuing violence, the number of children engaged in labour under hazardous conditions and unabated violence against women remain grim markers of the last year," the commission said.
"Deaths linked to terrorism may have decreased, but the soft targets' of religious minorities and law enforcement agencies continue to bear the brunt of violence," it said.
Journalists and bloggers continue to sustain threats, attacks and abductions, and the blasphemy law serves to coerce people into silence. The people's right to socio-cultural activities is curtailed by intolerance and extremism, and authorities are lenient for fear of a political backlash, it said.
The 296-page report said, "In a year when freedom of thought, conscience and religion continued to be stifled, incitement to hatred and bigotry increased, and tolerance receded even further, the state remained ineffective in tackling the issue of persecution of minorities and fell far short of its obligations.
There was no abatement in violence against religious minorities, with Christians, Ahmedis, Hazaras, Hindus and Sikhs all coming under attack, it said.
"Little wonder that the numbers of religious minorities are shrinking. At the time of Independence, Pakistan's religious minority constituted over 20 per cent of the population. The 1998 census reported that the numbers had declined to a little over three per cent, it said.
The report said the migration of Hindus to India "may soon turn into an exodus if the discrimination against them continues".
While the recent census data has not yet been made public, it is expected that the numbers of religious minorities will show a further decline, the report said.
"Faith-based violence in the name of religion continues unabated and the government has failed miserably to protect minority members against attacks and discrimination. Extremist forces bent on creating an exclusive Islamic identity for Pakistan appear to have been given a free hand," the report said.
"A few hundred fanatics held the capital and the garrison cities hostage for 23 days in Faizabad, Islamabad in November this year until their demands were accepted. In ceding to the demands of the violent demonstrators, the state has virtually given blanket licence to fundamentalism and militancy in the name of religion, it said.
With a population of around seven million, Hindus form the largest religious minority in Pakistan.
"Concentrated mainly in Sindh, Hindus continue to live an uneasy existence. Their perceived association with India has made life for them tougher than other religious minorities in Pakistan. According to their representatives, the greatest issue of concern to the community is that of forced conversions, the majority of these involving young women, the report said.
"In most cases the girls, many of whom are minors, are abducted, forcibly converted to Islam and then married to Muslim men, the report said.
Pakistan ranked fourth on the Christian support group Open Doors World Watch List 2017 of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian, it said.
"Violent persecution of Christians is a common occurrence in Pakistan. Christians are targets for murder, bombings, abduction of women, rape, forced conversions, and eviction from home and country. Fake cases under blasphemy laws are regularly used to terrorise Christians," it said.
Sikhs are a small religious minority in Pakistan. According to the last census, there are around 7,000 registered Sikhs living in Pakistan, mainly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, including the semi-autonomous tribal region that shares a border with Afghanistan.
"The Sikh leadership complains that rough and usually inaccurate estimates are made about their exact number. The Sikh community has also been subjected to continued discrimination and violence from extremists over the years because of their religious affiliation, but they are generally better treated by government agencies as compared to other religious minorities.
Persecution of religious minorities and targeted sects within Islam force people like the Hazaras to seek asylum in European countries. A signicantly large number of Ahmadis has migrated to Europe and lives in exile, it said.