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Pakistan maintains commitment to religious freedom

Wednesday, 23 December 2020
This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.
Shri Katas Raj Temples, Chakwal. Credit: Syed Javaid Kazi

Pakistan is a new country but an ancient Land, which has remained centre of mighty empires and religions. It is a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religion society with impressive credentials of interfaith harmony, tolerance and peaceful coexistence.

Gaining independence in 1947, Pakistan has, constitutionally, been an Islamic Republic since 1956 and roughly 96% of the population identify as Muslim.

Faisal Mosque, Islamabad. Credit: Syed Javaid Kazi

Islam is inherent to Pakistan, given that the country was founded in order to provide a homeland to Muslims of the Sub-continent. But Pakistan is by no means limited to Islam and was envisioned as a country for all faiths. Pakistan’s founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, emphasised the importance of religious freedom in his speech on the 11th August 1947 to present his vision of Pakistan and said:

“You are free; you are free to go to your temples. You are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion, caste or creed…”

The freedom to go to temples is vital for Pakistan’s second largest religious group, Hindus. Hindus constitute roughly 2% of the population. Formative moments in the history of Hinduism occurred in what is now Pakistan, including the composition of the oldest known Hindu sacred text called the Rigveda. Thousands of Hindus annually flock to Pakistan’s Balochistan province to take part in Hinglaj Yatra, the largest Hindu pilgrimage in the country, to honour the goddess Sati. Hinglaj is celebrated as an interfaith triumph, as Hindus and Muslims travel harmoniously side-by-side.

Pakistan is also home to one of the holiest cities in the Sikh religion, called Nankana Sahib. The city is named after the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, who was born there. Guru Nanak was revered during his lifetime by Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims alike. Annually Millions of Sikh pilgrims from all over the world visit their holy sites in Pakistan.

UN Secretary General António Guterres at Kartarpur Sahib. Credit: APP

Pakistan recently celebrated the first anniversary of the establishment of the Kartarpur Corridor, which allows Sikhs to travel visa-free from Dera Baba Nanak India to the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur, Pakistan. António  Guterres, the UN’s Secretary General, also visited Kartarpur this year and praised Pakistan’s commitment to bettering interfaith relations.

Kartarpur Corridor Inauguration. Credit: APP

The third largest religion in Pakistan is Christianity, mainly as a result of conversions during British colonial rule. Portuguese Jesuit missionaries had, much earlier in 1579, been invited by the Mughal Emperor Akbar to what is now Pakistan, during which time some of the first churches in Punjab were built.

As a result of the arrival of Christianity in present-day Pakistan, the country boasts stunning examples of Christian architecture especially in its several thousand Churches. This exceptional architecture is reflected noticeably at St Patrick’s Cathedral Karachi, St. Paul’s Church Rawalpindi, St. Matthew’s Church Nathia Gali, Sacred Heart Cathedral Lahore, St. John’s Cathedral Peshawar and many more.

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Lahore. Credit: Syed Javaid Kazi

The Christian festivals, like Christmas and Easter, are celebrated with lots of enthusiasm as people make extensive preparations for Christmas or ‘Bara Din’ (which in Urdu and Punjabi means the ‘Big Day’).

Pakistan has also been the cradle of Buddhist art and culture and the second holy land of Buddhism. The advent and development of Buddhism owes a great deal to the ancient land of Pakistan. It was here that the religious activities and philosophy of life propounded by its founder Gautama Buddha reached its climax and gradually spread across the entire Orient.

The land of Gandhara where the celebrated faith evolved is more or less a triangle about 100 kilometres across east to west and 70 kilometres from north to south, on the west of the Indus River in Pakistan. It is surrounded on three sides by mountains and covers the vast areas of today’s Peshawar valley, the hilly tracts of Swat, Buner and the Taxila valley.

There are other, smaller religious groups in Pakistan which constitute the most beautiful and unique aspects of Pakistani society as manifestations of the country’s diverse religious identity.

Pakistan’s religious institutions not only encourage charity, which undoubtedly explains the unparalleled hospitality of the Pakistani people, but they bring people together, regardless of their religious affiliation. Pakistan’s prominent charitable spirit has also been recognized in the World Giving Index of 2018, which placed Pakistan amongst the top ten countries worldwide for people most likely to help a stranger and for the highest number of people donating money.

The erroneous perception spread by some quarters that Pakistan is religiously intolerant is thus not true in terms of its foundation nor its Constitution, which guarantees freedom to profess one’s own religion.