Keeping in line with the efforts of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to introduce global standards for travel documents, the government started issuing machine-readable passports earlier this year. The format for the new passports

This apparently routine change in the passport format drew a sharp response from the six-party religious alliance, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), which won a substantial presence in the Pakistani parliament in the October 2002 elections. "We feel that the omission of the religion column is an attack on our very identity as Muslims," MMA leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman told reporters in Karachi last month.

That demand was rubbished by Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao some three weeks later. The government, he told a press conference in Islamabad, had no intention of retaining such a column in the MRPs.

However, it was a surprise, to say the least, when this week former Prime Minister Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, who heads the governing PML party, announced that the party wanted the religion column back in the passports.

Mr Hussain's declaration raised eyebrows all over the country, leaving political observers wondering what had led the former premier to embark on a path that was in clear conflict with Gen Musharraf's stated agenda of "enlightened moderation".

The alliance argues that the omission of a religious column would allow Ahmadis, a minority sect declared to be non-Muslims by the Bhutto government in 1974, to travel to Makka for pilgrimage. On the other hand two Saudi missions in Pakistan have access to the complete database on which the MRPs are based and that database records the religion of every holder. In any case, it is not the Saudis that are objecting.

It seems to be a classic example of religious orthodoxy finding sustenance from local political compulsions. Overt religious symbolism was an essential part of Gen Zia's strategy for Pakistan's Islamization. Even some 16 years after his death, the supporters of his legacy seem adamant not to let religion drop away from public eye at any level.

Even as the machine-readable passports controversy continues, there are indications that the government, instead of insisting on its current stance, may relent. There is talk that the machine-readable passports may have a page added to them - it would be non-machine readable and give the religion of the holder. In that eventuality, the world may find another reason for looking at Pakistan as a deeply orthodox nation inherently incapable of coming to terms with the modern world. In fact, the hidden agenda behind this move is to give further rise to the already existing severe religious discrimination in Pakistan.

The 1973 Constitution of Pakistan (which has been indefinitely suspended as of the 1999 coup) states that Islam is the state religion of Pakistan. Article 20 states that every citizen has the right to practice his or her own religion and that all religious denominations have the right to establish and maintain religious institutions. Article 21 says that no one may be forced to receive religious instruction or participate in religious ceremonies relating to a religion not one's own, and that educational institutions which are maintained wholly by a religious community may teach the faith of that community. Article 31 enjoins the government to take steps to enable the citizens of Pakistan, individually and collectively, to live according to the fundamental precepts of Islam. Article 227 declares that all exiting laws should be brought into conformity with the "Injunctions of Islam as laid down in the Holy Quran and sunnah." The president of the country is required to be a Muslim. Muslims are permitted to convert but that proselytizing among Muslims is prohibited.

A 1974 constitutional amendment declared that Ahmadis, who consider themselves to be Muslim, are not Muslim. In 1984, a law was added to the penal code prohibiting Ahmadis from calling themselves Muslims or using Islamic terminology. Punishment is up to three years imprisonment and a fine. These declarations had become unique examples in the history of the modern world which deprive certain community to call themselves what they believe to be. In 1986, another law was passed which declares the death penalty for anyone convicted of blaspheming the prophet Mohammed. This law has frequently been used to threaten Ahmadis, Christians and Muslims.

In 1990, a religious court ruled that the penalty for crimes under the law (Section 295-C of the country's Constitution) is execution. [i][i] The law states: "Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by inputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly defiles the sacred name of the Holy prophet Mohammed...shall be punished with death and shall be liable to a fine." The law is being used in Pakistan to discriminate against religious minorities: largely Christians, and Ahmadis.

The constitution somehow provides freedom of religion and states that adequate provisions are to be made for minorities to profess and practice their religions freely; however, in practice the governments impose limits on freedom of religion.

Specific government policies that discriminate against religious minorities include the use of the "Hudood" Ordinances, which apply different standards of evidence to Muslims and non-Muslims and to men and women for alleged violations of Islamic law; list specific legal prohibitions against Ahmadis practicing their religion; and incorporate blasphemy laws that have been used to target reformist Muslims, Ahmadis, Christians, and Hindus. Both the Hudood Ordinances and the blasphemy laws have been abused, in that they are often used against persons to settle personal scores.

Iqbal Haider, then the Law Minister, urged reform of the blasphemy law because several individuals had been falsely accused. There was a suspicion that the motivations of their accusers was to settle old scores or to intimidate others. In response, some extreme Fundamentalist Muslim leaders put a price of $40,000 on Haider's head.

On 1994-JUL-28, Amnesty International urged Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto to change the law because it was being used to terrorize religious minorities.[ii][ii] The AI press release stated: "Pakistan's blasphemy laws are so vaguely formulated that they encourage, and in fact invite, the persecution of religious minorities or non-conforming members of [the] Muslim majority."

Benazir Bhutto attempted to change the law, but was unsuccessful. She did direct all district magistrates to release any accused persons under this law until their case had first been investigated. The subsequent Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif won two thirds of the seats in parliament in 1997-JAN with strong support from Muslim religious fundamentalists. His government had reversed the ruling of the former prime minister. Individuals were then being arrested for blasphemy, and held without bail, while their cases were being investigated. No Christian charged with this crime had ever been granted bail.[iii][iii]

In 1993 the Supreme Court of Pakistan heard a case by a number of Ahmadis who asserted that they were being deprived of their religious rights and freedoms, as guaranteed under Article 20 of the constitution. The appeal was rejected. The court felt that granting the Ahmadis equal rights would be against public order. They said that Shi'a or Suni Muslims, who vastly outnumber the Ahmadis, consider the "movement ideologically offensive.[iv][iv] The majority opinion of the court stated that many Islamic phrases were, in effect, copyrighted trademarks of the Islamic faith. Thus the use of these phrases by Ahmadis was a form of copyright infringement; it violated the Trademark Act of 1940. They also found that Ahamdis were committing blasphemy when they spoke or wrote specific Islamic phrases.

The Bishop of Lahore, Alexander John Malik, said that the blasphemy law "is a tool for religious cleansing. The government is considering appending to the blasphemy law an amendment that will provide heavy penalties in the event of false accusations." Bishop Malik commented: "I think the government is quite willing to listen to us. It is the extreme mullahs who are making trouble."

Random acts of violence have occurred in Pakistan for many years between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. These often take the form of unprovoked attacks on peaceful Muslims at prayer.

With increasing interconnectedness of the people around the globe there is need to transform Pakistan into a welfare state that enjoins religious freedom, tolerance and equal rights to all irrespective of their theology, faith, creed, sex, belief or religion. No one is to be victimized or subjected to oppression, bias or hatred merely because of his religious beliefs and sentiments. I think Pakistanis should welcome introduction of global standards for travel documents like machine-readable passports and should not support any religious discrimination through passport.

It is historical fact that Pakistan was not created for the rule and ascendancy of any particular religion or school of thought. Everyone without an exception, irrespective of his belief and creed has equal claim over Pakistan. Here I can quote the Founder of Pakistan Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who in his address to the Constituent Assembly on 11th August 1947 had unequivocally declared,

"... You may belong to any religion or caste or creed - that has nothing to do with the business of State.... We are starting with this fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one State... Now, I think we should keep that in front of us as our ideal and you will find that in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State".

"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 the State of Pakistan".

Considering ever-increasing responsibilities as the members of the global society this becomes our duty to ensure religious freedom for all members of religious minorities and schools of thought and to accord equal treatment without any discrimination on grounds of faith or religion. Not only that each one of them should get his/her due rights, but the policy of religious tolerance be so designed that all religious minorities and those having different schools of thought, sect, faith, sex or belief may order their lives, rituals and religious practices in accordance with the dictates of their own faith and

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