Hardline clerics are using Pakistan’s blasphemy laws to persecute members of a small Islamic splinter group they say are not proper Muslims.
The two million-strong Ahmadiyya community, based in Rabwah in the Punjab, risks charges of “impersonating Muslims” under the country’s controversial religious laws.
Shameen Ahmad Khalid, a community leader, said: “We have people serving long jail sentences for blasphemy or for ‘posing as Muslims’.”
The laws mandate three years’ imprisonment for Ahmadis who dare to call themselves Muslims, call their places of worship mosques, recite the Koran or announce the azan, the call to prayer.
Twenty years ago, the people of Rabwah were charged with impersonating Muslims.
Since the charges are still outstanding, the town’s 50,000 inhabitants have to hide their Islamic habits, keep their beards trimmed and avoid using Muslim invocations.
The word “Muslim” has been erased, on the orders of a magistrate, from an epitaph engraved on the tomb of Pakistan’s most distinguished scientist, Dr Abdus Salam.
It used to read “the First Muslim Nobel Laureate”.
The religious laws are used by hardline clerics to persecute minority groups.
Despite recent improvements in voting rights for Christians and Hindus, Ahmadis are effectively still disenfranchised as they are permitted to vote only as “non-Muslims”.
Pakistani popular rhymes defame Ahmadis in lurid terms and militants have stamped thousands of rupee notes imploring believers to “put them to death”.
Pakistan’s president, Pervez Musharraf, has presented himself to his Western allies in the US-led war on terror as a bulwark against Islamic extremism.
But despite his policy of “enlightened moderation” and pledges to repeal the blasphemy law, so far the secular-minded retired general has not dared to tackle the clergy on the issue.
Rabwah is surrounded by mosques whose clerics host prominent annual anti-Ahmadi rallies and bellow hateful slogans from their minarets’ loudspeakers.
In 2005 gunmen burst into an Ahmadi village mosque at prayer time and killed eight people and wounded most of the 30-strong congregation.
Several months ago, a police officer killed Mohammed Ashraf, an Ahmadi, as he ate his breakfast in a hotel. As he opened fire the officer shouted: “You are an infidel and preaching the infidel creed.”
The Ahmadis’ reverence for a prophet who lived in the 19th century offends the principle orthodox Muslim tenet that the Prophet Mohammed was the final prophet.
Many Ahmadis crossed into Pakistan at Partition in 1947. But the Sunni mullahs turned against them and anti-Ahmadi riots broke out in 1953.
An amendment to Pakistan’s constitution in 1974 declared Ahmadis as non-Muslims.
The anti-Ahmadi laws, which allow Ahmadis to be charged with impersonating Muslims, were promulgated by late dictator Gen Zia ul-Haq in the 1980s.