Pakistan: Right to freedom of religion or belief under sustained attack

The Government of Pakistan must urgently respond to serious and ongoing persecution of individuals from religious minority groups by State and non-State actors, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) said in a new briefing paper released today.

“The Pakistani authorities have shamefully failed to address repeated calls to curb the longstanding violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief, including many instances of persecution of religious minority groups,” said Sam Zarifi, ICJ’s Secretary General.

The ICJ’s briefing paper analyzes and makes recommendations about violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief in Pakistan in the following contexts:

  • Offences against religion – so-called blasphemy laws – and their implementation in practice;
  • The persecution of Ahmadis, including as a result of the criminalization of the public manifestation and practice of their faith; and
  • Reports of forced conversions of girls belonging to minority religions, often followed by their marriage to Muslim men.

“It is time the Pakistani authorities take these human rights abuses seriously – dismissing the truth about the persecution of religious minorities in Pakistan and calling them ‘isolated incidents’ that are used to give a bad name to the country only emphasizes the failures of the Pakistani Government,” said Zarifi.

These failures, in addition to the ones identified above, include: the State’s ineffective prevention of and response to violence and discrimination by non-State actors against religious minorities, in particular the Shia Muslim community, which has been the target of violence throughout the country; inadequate protection and application of personal laws of religious minority communities; and compelling individuals from religious minority communities to receive Islamic religious instruction in public schools.

For years now, UN human rights mechanisms and experts, including the UN Human Rights Committee and the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, have expressed concern regarding violations of freedom of religion or belief in Pakistan, including the ones in focus in the ICJ’s briefing paper. Both the Human Rights Committee and the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief have previously recommended that Pakistan should repeal or amend its so-called blasphemy laws, in accordance with the country’s human rights obligations.

The Constitution of Pakistan provides that Islam shall be the State religion, but it also acknowledges the rights of people to practise other religions. Pakistan is also a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which provides that “everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.”

In a landmark 2014 judgment, Pakistan’s Supreme Court clarified and expanded the scope of the right to freedom of religion or belief in the Constitution in light of international human rights law. The Court explained that “religion” cannot be defined in rigid terms, and held that freedom of religion includes freedom of conscience, thought, expression, belief and faith, and that each citizen of Pakistan is free to exercise the right to profess, practise and propagate their religious views, even against the prevailing or dominant views of their own religious denomination or sect.

Nonetheless, such interpretation is often not implemented by courts and other authorities in individual cases regarding the right to freedom of religion or belief.

In light of international human rights law and standards on freedom of religion or belief, the ICJ’s briefing paper provides a series of recommendations to the Pakistani authorities focusing on, among other things, the need to repeal the country’s so-called blasphemy laws and preventing their misuse.

The ICJ also called on Pakistan to repeal all legislative provisions criminalizing the public practice of the religious beliefs of Ahmadis, and ensure allegations of “forced conversion” and “forced marriage” of girls from religious minorities are independently, impartially and promptly investigated.


Sam Zarifi, ICJ’s Secretary General, sam.zarifi(a)


Violations of the Right to Freedom of Religion or Belief in Pakistan (Briefing Paper)