I was quoted in Mr. Johnston's recent article on religiously motivated violence in Pakistan:
Last week’s terrorist onslaught in Boston reminded North Americans that determined religious fanatics can wreak havoc on this continent. However, the swift response of American authorities demonstrated that the perpetrators of religiously motivated terrorist attacks on U.S. soil will always be brought to justice.
Tragically, that is not the case in Pakistan, a Sunni Muslim majority state that openly persecutes religious minority communities while turning a blind eye to acts of religiously motivated terrorism and mob violence.
Under Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws, insulting Islam is a capital crime punishable by death or life in prison. According to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, “Pakistan’s application of its notorious blasphemy law against Christians and others is of concern.” And Human Rights Watch says that Ahmadi Muslims, a peace-loving minority Islamic sect branded as heretics by the Sunni majority, “have been major targets for blasphemy prosecutions and subjected to specific anti-Ahmadi laws.”
The Ahmadi have also been frequent victims of violence. Human Rights Watch reports that radical groups have “forced the demolition or closure of Ahmadi mosques and vandalized Ahmadi graves across Punjab province.”
Exposing “sectarianism and discrimination in Pakistan” is important to Pakistan’s beleaguered Christian community, says an official with the Presbyterian Church of Pakistan, who cannot be named for fear of being targeted by Islamist extremists. In an email, the church official praised the Whig for reporting on the destruction of the Joseph Colony and bringing the “facts in front of the world.”
“Canada is deeply concerned by Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws and the violence targeted at religious minorities. Blasphemy laws have been used to target members of all faiths, including the Sunni majority, but disproportionately, minority religious communities,” Rick Roth, spokesperson for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, told me in an email. “Canada is also concerned that members of Pakistan's Ahmadi community face legal discrimination under the Second Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan and other laws.”
According to Roth, “Canada has an international reputation of being a tolerant, free, safe, and welcoming country.” And he says that Canada’s reputation as a haven “is reinforced in Pakistan by the estimated 300,000 Canadians of Pakistani origin, many of whom are members of the Pakistani religious minorities, and who promote in their country of origin the image of Canada.”
A redacted refugee submission made available to the Whig by Raj Sharma, a Calgary-based immigration lawyer, tells the story of an Ahmadi family facing possible deportation back to Pakistan. A couple and their children have applied to stay in Canada on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. Their application states that they are “religious minorities in an overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim country and as Ahmadi Muslims (they) would suffer hardship upon return to Pakistan.” And the couple is supposedly “heartbroken over the thought of their young children returning to Pakistan and suffering discrimination and harassment as members of a religious minority.”
Jason Kenney, Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, is overhauling the immigration system. And Sharma has serious concerns about the impact of the reforms on the refugee adjudication system.
According to the immigration lawyer, Kenney “seems to be emphasizing administrative efficiency over procedural fairness.” This means that “refugees need to be ready to make their case within mere weeks of arriving in Canada - retaining counsel, recovering from (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) or otherwise corroborating their claim.”
Under the new system, rejected refugee claimants won’t be eligible “to apply to stay on humanitarian and compassionate grounds until a year passes,” Sharma explains. But he says that most failed applicants will be deported before they get to make that humanitarian appeal.
Canada’s refugee board does not appear to appreciate the seriousness of the situation in Pakistan. “I continue to be concerned with the quality of decision making from the RPD (Refugee Protection Division) with respect to claims from Pakistan, especially involving religious minorities facing arrest and blasphemy charges in Pakistan,” Sharma says. “We are currently seeking judicial review on two failed refugee claimants from Pakistan.”
In one of the cases, the board member supposedly “did a back-of-the-envelope calculation, noting the number of blasphemy charges against the total population of Pakistan, finding that there was no more than a mere possibility that he (he refugee applicant claiming persecution) would be at risk there.”
Not surprising, the government paints a more positive picture. “As part of improvements to Canada’s refugee system, the government is increasing the total number of refugees and other persons in vulnerable circumstances that this country resettles each year by 20%,” Danielle Vlemmiks, a spokesperson for Communications Citizenship and Immigration Canada, told me in an email. The department “aims to annually resettle up to 14,500 refugees and other individuals in vulnerable circumstances.”
Even though their neighbourhoods and/or houses of worship are being destroyed by mob or terrorist violence, the world tends not to view the Christian and Ahmadi communities of Pakistan as traditional refugees, because they aren’t fleeing a war zone. But if those same homes, churches and mosques were being levelled by rockets, the international community would likely take their plight more seriously. The double standard is appalling.
Provided that they are not criminals or terrorists, Canada should do the right thing and grant safe haven to authentic Pakistani Christians and Ahmadis seeking protection.
Follow Geoffrey P. Johnston, a local journalist, on Twitter @GeoffyPJohnston
Raj Sharma JD LLM