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Pakistan: Religious Violence

Volume 745: debated on Wednesday 22 May 2013

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have made to the Government of Pakistan on curbing religious violence in that country.

My Lords, there are good reasons why the international community needs to pay attention to the upsurge of religious violence and hatred in Pakistan over recent years, and indeed to the related political violence during the recent elections in which more than 100 people were killed. Pakistan is due to be the largest recipient of UK aid in the world when it gets £446 million in 2014-15. It also receives billions of dollars from the United States in both economic and military aid in the effort to shore up the country’s stability. However, since 2001, an estimated 30,000 civilians have been killed in religious and political assassinations and massacres—all that aid money has not reduced the level of violence in Pakistan. There was a temporary lull during Pervez Musharraf’s presidency between 1999 and 2007, but over the past few years there has been a further deterioration.

At the same time, the stability of Pakistan has become vital to the peace of the region, with the withdrawal of allied forces from Afghanistan. The new Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, has said that he will help the process by allowing NATO to use Pakistan’s roads for the transit of troops and equipment, but large convoys of US or UK forces on their way home will make a tempting target for the local Taliban and its associates. The presence of well organised and well armed groups of terrorists in Pakistan also poses a threat to neighbouring states, as we saw from the Mumbai atrocity in 2008.

Last Wednesday, my noble friend Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon perceptively suggested that Russia’s support for Assad was not a matter of looking after its only remaining supporter in the Middle East but a consequence of its experience in Dagestan and other Muslim republics where there was a war between Sunnis and Shias. My noble friend Lord King of Bridgwater also referred to the Shia-Sunni conflict, and he coupled this with the spread of jihadism and fundamentalism. In Syria and Iraq, there are interreligious civil wars.

The agenda of Sunni extremists such as al-Qaeda and its imitators across the Islamic world is to eliminate the Shia and other varieties of Islam, as well as the Kaffirs or unbelievers, from the face of the earth. Their ultimate goal is a universal caliphate based on what they imagine were the principles of governance under the four “rightly guided caliphs” who followed the Prophet in the seventh century. In Pakistan, one active and ruthless group of terrorists belonging to this loose coalition is the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. This outfit tried to kill Nawaz Sharif when he was Prime Minister in 1999, and the suicide bomber who killed Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and 26 others in 2007 was probably a member of the organisation. It claimed responsibility for the murder of four American oil workers in 1997 and for the bombing of the Protestant International Church in Islamabad in March 2002. But its main target has always been the Shia, as it brazenly acknowledges when it takes credit for the atrocities that it commits. The group says that the Shia are infidels, that they should be labelled as non-Muslims under the law, and that they are “wajib-ul-qatl”, an Urdu expression meaning “worthy to be killed”.

A semi-legal organisation with the same ideology of hatred is the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, which took over from a banned organisation called Sipah-e-Sahaba. The ASWJ fielded 130 candidates in the recent Pakistani elections, generally under the banners of the PML-N and an alliance of five Sunni religious parties generally known as the MDN. Under one of these labels, a man who had spent five years in prison for murdering six people in 1998 was elected to a seat in Punjab, and other terrorists may well now also be MPs. The Election Commission of Pakistan directed that in 55 constituencies, listed sectarian terrorists should be disqualified from standing, but it turned out that this was not within the powers conferred on returning officers by the ECP itself.

I am not going to recite the whole appalling history of the crimes perpetrated by these terrorists because it would take all day, but a couple of examples illustrate their mode of operations. On 3 April 2012, six buses were stopped in Chilas in the northern territories en route to Gilgit, Baltistan. The male passengers were taken off the buses and their identity cards examined for Shia names. At least 25 were shot dead on the spot. No official report has been published on this massacre and, although I understand that four or five people were arrested, no trials have taken place.

In January, twin bomb blasts in the busy market area at Alamdar Road, Quetta, killed at least 108 people and injured 120. A LeJ spokesman telephoned the media to say that it had committed this outrage and threatened that no Shia would be allowed to leave Balochistan alive. In February, a bomb contained in a water tanker exploded in Hazara Town, Quetta, killing at least 92 people and injuring more than 200. The police arrested 170 suspects, but there has been no news of trials, let alone convictions. In March, a bomb in the Shia area of Abbas Town in Karachi killed 45 people and wounded 150. These atrocities and the targeted assassinations of Shia intellectuals are part of a concerted attempt to wipe out the entire Shia population of Pakistan. That is genocide, as defined in Article 2 of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

I have been sent hundreds of eyewitness statements and other reports from Shia organisations throughout Pakistan on these events, and have forwarded them to the UN Special Rapporteurs on Religious Freedom and on Extrajudicial Executions. I know that the Government do not intervene in the choice of subjects the special procedures take up, but as this is obviously one that would demand resources well beyond those available to the special rapporteurs, I would be grateful if we might consider making a one-off contribution to the Human Rights Commission, if the matter is pursued.

The special procedures should also take action on the relentless persecution of the Ahmadi Muslims, in spite of the enormous contribution they have made to the development of Pakistan; for example, in the persons of Sir Zafarullah Khan, the first Foreign Minister of Pakistan, and Dr Abdus Salam, Pakistan’s only Nobel Prize-winner. The most heinous atrocity against this community was in May 2010, when simultaneous terrorist attacks on its two principal mosques in Lahore during Friday prayers killed 94 people and injured more than 120. The Ahmadis have been declared non-Muslims, are victims of relentless persecution under the blasphemy laws, are denied voting rights and are in practice denied access to the higher ranks of all the professions.

As with the Shia, the Ahmadis are victims of targeted assassinations, encouraged by another extremist organisation, the Khatme Nabuwwat, which is free to spread its messages of hatred and violence. In 2012, 20 Ahmadis were killed, and the leader of the community in Rabwah, the centre of the community, was tortured to death by the police. Ahmadi places of worship were demolished, mostly in Punjab, and the police themselves demolished graves in Faisalabad and Mangat Uncha. A dozen armed men vandalised 120 gravestones in Model Town, Lahore. Dozens of Ahmadis were arbitrarily arrested, and Ahmadi publications were summarily banned. The Friday Times said that the fetters imposed on the Ahmadi community were reminiscent of the restrictions imposed on the Jews by Nazi Germany in 1935.

I return to the ideology which threatens the survival of religious minorities and poses an even wider menace to the safety and stability of Pakistan itself, being promoted as it is in mosques and madrassahs financed by Saudi money to the tune of an estimated $100 million a year. It is intolerant and exclusivist, maintaining that all who do not subscribe to the Salafist version of Islam are infidels belonging to the Dar al-Harb, the realm of the unbeliever. In the extreme forms it takes in Pakistan, it promotes sectarian and religious hatred and teaches that killing unbelievers is approved by God. We need a worldwide strategy to combat this monstrous ideology. I believe that such is the magnitude of the danger it presents to world peace, only the United Nations Security Council has the authority and resources to grapple with it. I hope that the Government will consider how best to raise it at that level.

My Lords, we are very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for bringing this topic to our attention. He described the problem, and I do not need to add very much. I shall concentrate on the why of this problem and on what we can do about it as an interested party.

A persistent problem since the foundation of Pakistan is its duality. Although Muhammad Jinnah supported a Muslim nation in pre-independence India, he was not an Islamist or a very religious person. He wanted a western, liberal regime for the large Muslim population in the subcontinent. As it happened, the majority of Muslims lived in Hindu-majority areas, and Muslims in Muslim-majority areas were a minority of Muslims. Pakistan was established, but soon after its establishment, Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan died, so there has been an identity problem. Is Pakistan a western, liberal-type democratic regime or a state founded upon the Islamic faith that should put forward Islamic policies? Along the way, especially after the departure of East Pakistan—Bangladesh—a persistent problem has been the tendency to emphasise Islamic anger, most particularly by military dictators who have no democratic legitimacy. Zia-ul-Haq played the Islamic card and was encouraged to do so because at that time the Americans were interested in getting the Russians out of Afghanistan, so they aided Zia-ul-Haq in his programmes.

To some extent, some of the emphasis on orthodoxy and Islamism has been engendered by international forces, but there is a problem that even in establishing an Islamic nation, sectarian violence within Islam is the most serious problem of Pakistan. As the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has already pointed out, it is a Sunni/Shia, Sunni/Ahmadi battle. There is also a battle against Christians. There has been violence against the non-Muslim minority in Pakistan, which was 10% at the time of independence, but has now dwindled to about 2% or 2.5%.

How do we understand and tackle this religious violence? As the noble Lord pointed out, you have to see Pakistan not as a part of south Asia but as the eastern limit of western Asia. The tensions in Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Iran between Sunnis and Shias—Iraq is the battleground of Sunnis and Shias—are now happening in Pakistan. One thing we ought to be able to do is to contribute to a real understanding of why it has happened. In UK universities, government, NGOs and embassies, we have expertise; we ought to understand why the problem persists. How much of this problem is religious and how much economic and social? Are there economic and social roots to this battle between Shias and Sunnis? In India, for instance, some of the so-called communal riots have economic and social roots. They may be jockeying for land, jobs or economic resources.

Our first task should be to deepen our understanding so that we can help Pakistani society and the Pakistani Government to understand and tackle this problem. Obviously, we cannot say anything to a sovereign country about how it should conduct its affairs.

I think that going to the UN Security Council, as the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, suggested, would be a drastic step and I do not know whether the Security Council would actually decide anything, given the Cold War differences that persist. As an interested power with a large diaspora from Pakistan, we really ought to try to help Pakistan to reach an understanding and do whatever we can to ameliorate the situation.

The most interesting thing that has happened in Pakistan is the establishment of a new Government. For the first time in its history, Pakistan has had a proper constitutional transition from one democratically elected Government to another. Pakistan may be turning over a new leaf. Our task is to be there to help Pakistan improve matters at home as far as possible.

My Lords, the combination of inadequate religious freedom protections and an entrenched climate of impunity has strengthened the position of the more violent groups in Pakistani society, described by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, which have long been allowed to promote their own interpretation of Islam, narrowing the space for difference. What begins as an anti-minority sentiment can later divide the majority.

The noble Lords, Lord Avebury and Lord Desai, rightly referenced the alarming growth of anti-Shia violence in Pakistan. In 2012, at least 325 members of the Shia Muslim population were killed in targeted attacks. In this context, counterextremism discussions with Pakistan are clearly incomplete without measures intended to bolster the protection and promotion of religious freedom or belief. Pursuant to the Written Answer that the Minister gave me on 17 May, I would be keen to know when we will raise these questions with the new Government.

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and anti-Ahmadi provisions remain key concerns. The blasphemy laws lack any definition of terms and ignore the question of intent. False accusations can be easily registered, as evidential requirements are inadequate. Dozens were charged in 2012 and at least 16 people remain on death row for blasphemy, while another 20 have been given life sentences. In 2010, Asia Bibi, a Christian from Punjab province, became the first woman in Pakistan’s history to be sentenced to death for blasphemy, and continues to languish in prison. Can the Minister tell us when we last raised her case with the authorities in Pakistan? The resolution of last year’s case against the Christian teenager Rimsha Masih was cited by Pakistan as an illustration that the situation is improving, but the subsequent blasphemy-related attacks on hundreds of Christian homes in Badami Bagh in Lahore in March this year suggests otherwise.

Access to justice is problematic for all vulnerable communities in Pakistan, including minorities. Perpetrators are rarely brought to justice, which means that minorities are often viewed as easy targets. Ahmadis, Christians, Hindus, Shias, Sufis and Sikhs have all been badly affected, with Shia communities suffering by far the most casualties. Hate speech and the propagation of inflammatory messages is a standard precursor to religiously motivated violence, but it is rarely punished in Pakistan, despite the fact that relevant legislation already exists. Even government officials inciting violence have not been held accountable for their actions.

The police and members of the judiciary need to be made far more aware of human rights and the unacceptability of impunity. In the aftermath of the Badami Bagh violence, many commented that it would not have taken place if the perpetrators of previous mob incidents—Gojra in 2009, Sangla Hill in 2005, Shanti Nagar in 1997—had been adequately dealt with. Official investigation reports exist for at least the high-profile cases. Will the Minister be pressing the incoming Government to make these public, or indeed to shed light on the murder of the federal Minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, whose killers have never been identified? If the case of an assassinated Cabinet Minister remains unsolved, how can ordinary citizens have faith in the justice system and why should potential attackers fear the law?

Knowing that he was likely to be assassinated, Shahbaz Bhatti once said that he hoped his stand would send,

“a message of hope to the people living a life of disappointment, disillusionment and despair”,

adding that his life was dedicated to the “oppressed, downtrodden and marginalised” and to,

“struggle for human equality, social justice, religious freedom, and to uplift and empower the religious minorities’ communities”.

Will we be pressing for an end to impunity and the repeal of the anti-Ahmadi provisions in the constitution, which legitimise violence and social prejudice? What will we be saying about gender-based violence, the abduction, forced marriage and forcible conversion of Christian and Hindu women and girls, which has increased in frequency in the past couple of years, with perpetrators emboldened by the relatively low likelihood of conviction? We have heard about the increase in aid provision this year from £267 million to £446 million, with Pakistan about to become the largest recipient of UK aid. What are we going to do in using that aid to press for the removal of hate-driven material from schools and emphasising the importance of forming teachers who nurture respect and tolerance? Donors such as the UK need to be sure that they are not inadvertently funding materials that bolster messages of religious intolerance and violence in Pakistan.

In 1947, at the time of partition, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, gave a speech to the New Delhi Press Club, setting out the basis on which the new state of Pakistan was to be founded. In it, he forcefully defended the rights of minorities to be protected and to have their beliefs respected. He said:

“Minorities, to whichever community they may belong, will be safeguarded. Their religion, faith or belief will be secure. There will be no interference of any kind with their freedom of worship. They will have their protection with regard to their religion, faith, their life and their culture. They will be, in all respects, the citizens of Pakistan without any distinction of caste and creed”.

Pakistan’s new Government owe it to his memory, and to the memory of men such as Shahbaz Bhatti, and to girls such as Malala Yousufzai, the 15 year-old who was shot by the Taliban for pressing for the right of women to an education, and to the millions who bravely defied the Taliban to vote in recent elections in Pakistan, to make those sentiments a reality.

I agree with a great deal of what has been said. I commend the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, on the way he spoke and his well known commitment to freedom and religious tolerance. Let us deal with the political point first. I think that we all accept that Pakistan came very near to being a failed state with nuclear weapons. As the noble Lord, Lord Desai, hinted, there are indications of a movement away from that towards being a more stable state. We must do all that we can to encourage that, and I know that the Government, as did the previous Government, are doing all that they can to help development and structure the rule of law.

The problem then becomes the issue of religion. We need to discuss that more openly, and I commend the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, for the way in which she has raised this issue in public. At times, we tip-toe around it, for understandable and good reasons, because we are afraid of making a difficult situation worse or because we do not have the necessary depth of understanding and are afraid about making statements that might be misunderstood. Yesterday we saw an example in Iran, where a religious leader decided to exclude certain people from standing in the forthcoming elections. That is based on the assumption that the state is run on a religious guidance principle and that there is not a political judgment below that. I take the view that religions—not just Islam, but most religions—are a form of ideology. The problem then becomes how far you pursue that in a very heavy ideological way and how tolerant you can be of minorities. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, has indicated a number of ways. When it becomes very authoritarian, religious minorities of any type are vulnerable.

I follow what the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, said in response on the Statement on Syria on Monday on the Floor of the House. I asked how we dealt with the struggle between Sunni and Shia, and she indicated that in her background that difference between them was not a problem some 20 years ago. I agree with that; I knew of the differences, but I was not aware of any problem. I have certainly become aware of them strongly in recent years. What troubles me—and I had difficulty getting figures on this—is that well over 10 million Muslims have been killed in conflict, mainly in countries that have a majority Muslim faith. The majority have been killed not by Jews, Hindus, Christians, westerners, Russians, Chinese or anyone else, but by other Muslims.

We have to face the fact that a struggle is going on within Islam for its heart and soul. I am clear about whose side I would be on in this. I believe strongly in the rule of law and democratic principles, so I do not want to see the extremist ideology win in such circumstances. However, the question for a country like Britain—or, indeed, for people within Islam itself who do not want to see that happen is this: how do you respond to it? It is immensely difficult.

Britain has an impressive record of close relationships with Pakistan and, indeed, with many other states where Islam is the predominant force. We have many people who hold to Islamic values here. As we know, it is not just one of the fastest growing religions in the world, it is also one of the fastest growing religions in the United Kingdom. That might give us some influence. Perhaps what I was heading towards on Monday last with my question about Syria to the Minister is this: could we not play a role in what is almost a civil war within Islam in setting up discussions between the competing factions in a safe situation; that is, in Britain? That is because, frankly, they cannot do that in Pakistan. If you tried to arrange meetings between the Sunnis and the Shias in Pakistan in its current state, or indeed in Iraq or Syria, everyone would be in acute danger. We have seen that in the assassinations, bomb attacks and so on. There is a case for looking to see whether we can help, and that requires using the established leaders of Islam within the UK who recognise that there is a struggle for the heart and soul of Islam. It is a great religion. Although I do not like religions of any type—I am not religious and never have been—I recognise the importance of religion to many people. When people belonging to a religion are caught up in violent disputes that involve their own people being killed, we need to think of ways of helping them to discuss their problems in a more constructive manner. We have to face the fact that a struggle is going on within Islam for the heart and soul of Islam. I am clear about whose side I would be on in this. I believe very strongly in the rule of law and democratic principles, so I do not want to see the extremist ideology win in circumstances like this. However, the question for a country like Britain or, indeed, for people within Islam itself who do not want to see that happen is this: how do you respond to it? It is immensely difficult.

Britain has an impressive record of close relationships with Pakistan and, indeed, with many other states where Islam is the predominant force. We have many people who hold to Islamic values here. As we know, it is not just one of the fastest growing religions in the world, it is also one of the fastest growing religions in the United Kingdom. That might give us some influence. Perhaps what I was heading towards on Monday with my question about Syria to the Minister is this: could we not play a role in what is almost a civil war within Islam in setting up discussions between the competing factions in a safe situation; that is, in Britain? Frankly, they cannot do that in Pakistan. If you tried to arrange meetings between the Sunnis and the Shias in Pakistan in its current state, or indeed in Iraq or Syria, everyone would be in acute danger. We have seen that in the assassinations, bomb attacks and so on.

There is a case for seeing whether we can help, and that requires using the established leaders of Islam within the UK who recognise that there is a struggle for the heart and soul of Islam. It is a great religion. Although I do not like religions of any type—I am not religious and never have been—I recognise the importance of religion to many people. When people belonging to a religion are caught up in violent disputes that involve more of their own people being killed than are killed by others, we need to think of ways to helping them to discuss their problems in a more constructive manner.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Avebury for securing this debate. Over the past couple of decades, reports of religious and ethnic intolerance in Pakistan have hit the headlines in the world’s media many times. Pakistan’s current scenario provides many examples of the increasingly intolerant behaviour of its society, including the tragic murders of Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab, and of Federal Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, and the burning of properties belonging to religious minorities in Shanti Nagar, Bhamiwala and Gojra. In the city of Quetta during January and February this year alone, nearly 200 Shias of the Hazara ethnic group were killed in two separate bomb attacks, while in March in Karachi, some 50 Shias were killed in a truck bombing that caused extensive damage in the Shia neighbourhood. Ahmadi, Christian and Hindu communities are continuously being reported as the victims of sectarian violence in many parts of Pakistan.

Meanwhile, NGO and aid workers have been targeted across the country, often by criminal gangs and sectarian groups that are hostile to their work. The death on 13 March 2013 of Parveen Rehman, a leading NGO activist in Karachi and the director of the Orangi Pilot Project, one of the largest housing and drainage projects in slum areas in all of Asia, caused outrage in Pakistan and around the world. Her killing showed how powerful the land-grabbing mafia, whose abuses she brought to light, have become and the impunity they enjoy. Her tragic death followed the killing of some 16 aid workers in separate incidents during December and January.

Many people attribute this surge in religious tension to Pakistan’s blasphemy law, which prohibits blasphemy against any recognised religion, providing penalties ranging from a fine to death. However, I am not aware of any executions having been undertaken under the blasphemy law so far. It has to be said that, from the date of its inception, Pakistan was a moderate, liberal and tolerant Islamic country. Very few cases of intolerance were reported during the best part of the first 35 years of its life.

There could be multiple reasons or causes for the change of attitude in that society. I would like to look into some of them.

The first and, in my view, biggest reason for the drastic change is the direct result of the western countries’ response, led by the United States, to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Pakistan was asked to play a front-line state role by allowing its soil to be used to harbour, train and launch mujaheddin to fight the Soviet forces in Afghanistan. After the Soviet withdrawal, the western allies walked away from the scene and left Pakistan with tens of thousands of armed mujaheddin, hundreds of madrassahs and millions of Afghan refugees to deal with. Those mujaheddin became Taliban and turned on Pakistan in their witch-hunt for what they perceived to be anti-Islamic forces. With their misguided and narrow interpretation of Islam—often described as Salafi or Wahabi ideology—they targeted non-Muslim communities as well as various Muslim sects that disagreed with their interpretation. Their actions included bomb attacks, shooting, suicide attacks, arson and kidnapping. Rival factions responded in the same manner, making the law and order situation even worse.

The post-9/11 military action against the Taliban in Afghanistan pushed the Taliban deep into Pakistan. Since then, terror attacks on civilian, Pakistani military and the law enforcement agencies have intensified. According to the Express Tribune of 27 March this year,

“Pakistan has lost 49,000 lives since the apocalyptic attacks on World Trade Center and Pentagon in the United States on September 11, 2001”.

According to the Weekly Pulse of 10 June 2011:

“Pakistan has suffered the colossal financial losses of more than $68 billion … in the … war on terror since 2001”.

Pakistan had to use its armed forces to clear the Swat Valley and many other areas from the control of extremists. The perpetrators of this cycle of violence were rarely caught and brought to justice, which encouraged rival political groups, criminal gangs, drugs and land mafia and individuals to use the same methods to settle their own scores.

In many people’s view, different criminal gangs use these situations to their own advantage. For example, human traffickers would help to spread fear and insecurity successfully in the victim communities and offer advice—which is often very costly—to flee the country and obtain asylum. This advice is quite popular in some parts of Pakistan. In my own experience, religious violence in areas of Azad Jammu and Kashmir is almost non-existent, yet in the past few years thousands of people from these areas have successfully obtained asylum in many countries, including the United Kingdom, France, Canada, Spain and Australia.

To combat terrorism, remould extremism, improve education and promote community cohesion, Pakistan needs some practical support in improving its law and order. It needs a transformation of its education system, particularly in the religious schools, the madrassahs; an impartial judiciary; and transparent, efficient and good governance. I understand that Her Majesty’s Government are providing substantial support to Pakistan in many areas. Can the Minister tell us what results we are seeing in this regard, and can she assure the House that our commitment will continue despite the challenges?

My Lords, I join all noble Lords who have praised the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for securing this short debate and for his commitment to human rights and raising issues of minorities around the world, and in particular in Pakistan.

I begin by congratulating the parties that have won elections, Mian Nawaz Sharif, and also Imran Khan, because we expect a different type of governance from them. Their Government will need huge support because they face many challenges—on energy, economy, human rights, corruption, debt and sorting out this dysfunctional Government. I think perhaps there is work for the UN to try to help so that the law and order situation can also be improved.

Pakistan has suffered from the Soviet Union invasion and the war on terror, and I believe that there are external proxy wars in Pakistan as well. That is why various figures have been mentioned; the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, mentioned 49,000 lives, and the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, mentioned 30,000 civilians. I know that more than 6,000 police officers and army personnel have lost their lives. That is more than in any other country that has been fighting the war on terror. People have been killed in mosques, houses, businesses, bazaars and offices; even Pakistan’s intelligence service headquarters in Lahore, Peshawar, Quetta and Karachi have been attacked. I say this because I will come to some conclusions later and make some recommendations. Even Pakistan’s army headquarters were attacked.

We have heard about the appalling violence against Christian, Ahmadi, Hindu and Shia communities and minorities. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned that at least 325 Shia were murdered last year. A barrister told me that last year 1,450 deaths were recorded, and there were targeted killings in Mardan, Kohistan, Mansehra, Gilgit and Karachi—and the list goes on. Even though under Pakistan’s constitution there is complete equality for every citizen, we know that in this part of the world religious extremists, whether the BJP in India or the Islamists in Pakistan, use religion for political power. Even Sunni tribes have been driven out of the villages of Beshara and Bohra. There is lawlessness in Baluchistan, whether by nationalists or the al-Qaeda-linked and banned organisation Lashkar-e Jhangvi, and there are attacks on the Hazara community. The worst thing is not the appalling terrorist attacks that take place but the fact the Government were silent and did nothing, until the coffins of victims were left on the road for days, after which the Prime Minister and government officials came from Islamabad and the bodies were buried.

I shall say a little about the allegations made in London about a political mafia. We know that there are nationalists and in Karachi there are land mafias, drug mafias, extortion mafias and political mafias. Serious allegations have been made against Mr Altaf Hussain, the leader of the MQM. I have an e-mail from an association of journalists in Pakistan stating that journalists’ families have been threatened. In his address, which was televised on 11, 13 and 15 May, Mr Hussain made direct threats against people who were protesting at the Three Swords roundabout. People have drawn my attention to the offences committed under Sections 44, 45 and 46 of the Serious Crime Act and inciting terrorism overseas. The British high commissioner in Islamabad and the British Government have been approached in relation to that. Will the Minister say whether the Government have had complaints and what action they or Scotland Yard will take against this gentleman, who is sitting in London and threatening Pakistan’s security?

Finally, I turn to what is needed in Pakistan. Strengthening the criminal law against terrorism is very important. People who were arrested for attacking the GHQ are now out. Every speaker has mentioned people not being prosecuted, but that is because they have been able to run free as the laws are not tight enough. Pakistan needs help, and I ask the Minister whether any help is available to the Pakistani Government in tightening up criminal and terrorism laws.

Police officers must be appointed on merit, although in Karachi the MQM has been insisting on police officers belonging to its group. No wonder there are so many problems. The rest of Pakistan is the same; it is not only happening in Karachi. As I said, such appointments must be based on merit, witnesses must receive protection and be free of intimidation, and there must be protection for officers and judges. There must be engagement with political forces which are disenfranchised and want to be part of the mainstream politics. There also has to be targeted action against al-Qaeda-linked organisations, whoever they are; they cannot hide behind political parties. We have to encourage this.

Finally, Pakistan needs help rather than criticism. I do not think that there is a war going on within Islam; a lot of it is political, and that needs to be resolved politically as well.

My Lords, I join in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. As I suspect is the case for other noble Lords, the preparation for this debate has made some pretty depressing reading. I have looked at the Questions from Richard Burden MP and Angus Robertson MP, as well as the very many Questions from the noble Lord, Lord Alton, which have raised the issue of a whole sequence of really appalling circumstances. Questions have been robustly replied to by Mr Burt in the other place. Having read the replies, I think that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has every right to be proud of his determination to test the Government on these and other issues, but he is perhaps also entitled to feel a little frustrated when the responses are that we are engaged in close monitoring and raising the issues. Perhaps that is all that one can reasonably say we are in a position to do, but I think we should explore some other options.

Alongside parliamentary discussion, there has been a great deal of other discouraging and dispiriting coverage. Hindus and Christians say that they are living in hell. Their accounts say that they will try any means to get their families out of the country. Other newspaper accounts—not always with the detail that might be most useful—describe the violent persecution of Shias by Sunnis, who, as the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, said, regard some or perhaps all of the Shia population as heretical, and in some instances not Muslims at all. There is systematic suppression, targeted killings and endemic discrimination. Just a few moments ago, the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, added to the depressing story and, quite rightly, reminded us of the history of the way in which the western powers dealt with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and its consequences. I thank him for that insight.

Perhaps I may start with one or two basic points. First, these terrible events and persecutions are taking place in a nation which has itself become the subject of more terrorist violence than almost anywhere else on the planet. Secondly, despite the threat of international terrorism, there seems on occasion to be some ambivalence in Pakistan about how to deal with it. That is illustrated by the relative ease with which Osama bin Laden could live in Abbottabad without anybody trying to remove him from Pakistani territory. As has been said in this debate, there seems on occasion to be a lack of response to extremist violence. There has been little discussion of nuclear proliferation issues, and the threats seem, as a number of noble Lords have said, to mean that we have to focus still more intently on Pakistan and recognise that the strategic content of what is taking place is fundamental to us as well. Thirdly, it is important for America to engage and to resist calls to sever links—something that one hears around the international circuit. I should be grateful if the Minister could set out the extent of our co-ordination with the United States on this question.

I ask these questions and make these points because, with the sixth largest population and the sixth largest military in the world, and with a nuclear arsenal, the country is—to borrow a concept from the world of finance—too big to fail. My noble friend Lord Soley was right to point out that there is a risk of it becoming a failed state. It is also too mission-critical for us in relation to Afghanistan and the withdrawal from that country. Other noble Lords have covered that point.

My noble friend Lord Desai asked why Pakistan is in its current position and made the point that the transition to democratic government is at least a positive sign. What are the sources of our influence? I accept that they are limited and they certainly require us to understand with greater sympathy what might be possible. For a start, nearly 1 million citizens of this country have direct ties to Pakistan. I wonder whether we have tried to encourage the discussion that could be held here among that very significant number of well meaning and honourable people, as my noble friend Lord Soley suggested. As the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, said, aside from our becoming Pakistan’s largest aid donor, we are its second biggest investor and fourth biggest trading partner. What leverage does this kind of economic engagement offer us? Might it be in any respect a vehicle for knowledge transfer and economic stimulus? Unless religious zealots try to prevent the modernisation of the economy, these may be ways in which relationships could become more productive and deeper.

In respect of religious freedoms, which are at the centre of this debate, and the active engagement with women’s rights that we wish to see, I wonder whether in the Commonwealth the Harare principles could be extended, better codified and urged on all Commonwealth members. This is one of the occasions when people talk in an interfaith sense of the need to win hearts and minds. That need certainly exists, but I confess that when I hear those words, I fear that they are a formula to avoid dealing with something that is rather more profound and difficult. When we call for gradual influence from the Commonwealth or comment on the impact of the diaspora here, it should not come to mean doing very little else.

I share the view that has been expressed, not least by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, that some of the persecutions that have been described are crimes of concern to humanity. I choose the word carefully and do not seek to be offensive, but they are crimes, and they would be in any part of the international community. Persuasion is, of course, very important and reshaping attitudes is vital but the buck must stop somewhere in all this. We need to explore urgently the role of the international community, perhaps through the United Nations in the discussions it has about the responsibility to protect, or, indeed, in the need to look further east to other Asian communities to begin to build a regional dynamic which is also economically sustainable. As I say, these are things that need to be explored with some urgency. Pakistan is too big to fail and I am afraid that some crimes are too big to fail to act upon.

My Lords, I start by thanking my noble friend Lord Avebury for allowing us the opportunity to discuss this important and, indeed, timely matter. As I listened to so much expertise around this Room on religion, Pakistan, human rights and minorities, I began to think that my record of finishing within the allotted time, in which I take pride, might well be broken today. However, I will try not to go beyond my time. As the Minister with responsibility for both Pakistan and human rights policy, I am increasingly concerned about the levels of interreligious and intrareligious violence in Pakistan, as are all noble Lords present. Pakistan remains a country of concern in the annual FCO report on human rights and democracy, with the treatment of minorities representing one of the several acute human rights challenges that the country faces. Noble Lords will be aware that this and the intertwined issue of freedom of religion or belief have long been personal priorities for me, and I shall continue to use every opportunity I have to address them.

Some very interesting thoughts were raised by my noble friend Lord Hussain in relation to intrareligious tensions. I am thankful for his expertise and what he brought to the debate today. The noble Lord, Lord Desai, again raised the issue of the interpretation of faiths, while the noble Lord, Lord Soley, asked whether we could have some of these more difficult debates on UK soil if the opportunity presents itself.

We are building up FCO expertise on religion and in understanding these very difficult intrareligious disputes. To repeat what I said in the House the other day, 25 years ago when I was growing up, being from a mixed Sunni-Shia background was not discussed or seen as being unusual. The good that has come out of the intrareligious harmony in this country is that this debate is not live in the United Kingdom. Many of the national bodies that speak on issues affecting British Muslim communities are represented by both Shias and Sunnis—long may that continue.

Returning to the concerns raised in the Human Rights and Democracy report, the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of religion or belief is one of the Government’s key human rights priorities; there is also the UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief. Violence and persecution such as we have seen in Pakistan and in other countries across the world are the ultimate manifestation of intolerance and discrimination. We regularly see that where minorities are being attacked, other fundamental freedoms are also under threat.

I am committed to international action to address these issues. I spoke about this at the UN General Assembly last year. In January this year, I hosted an international ministerial conference in London on the freedom of religion or belief, where I felt it was important to build political consensus on the red lines around tolerance and the basic practice that we could expect each state to implement. Those discussions are continuing and are starting to solidify international consensus around the need to do more to combat religious intolerance and promote the right to freedom of religion or belief. Pakistan is engaging internationally on these issues both through that process—the adviser to the President on religious affairs was present—as well through the OIC-led Istanbul process, the UN Human Rights Council, the UN General Assembly and our bilateral discussions.

My noble friend Lord Avebury asked whether we need to raise this at the United Nations. I know that the Secretary-General has taken note of the extremist attacks in Pakistan. He has been very vocal in condemning them. We continue to discuss these matters at multilateral UN level and, of course, at bilateral level.

We value our partnership with Pakistan, with its many distinctive characteristics, including the close personal connections between our citizens. There are more than 1 million journeys between the two countries every year. Britain is committed to an enduring relationship with Pakistan built on mutual trust and respect and on our many shared interests. As David Cameron said on his first visit to Pakistan as Prime Minister, there is the opportunity for “naya aghraz”—a fresh start. We are an unswerving supporter of Pakistan’s development and its democratic future. It is a broad relationship. Yes, it is based on security and terrorism, the economy and trade, but it is also based on culture, community and—dare I say?—cricket. Our understanding is nuanced and measured and the relationship is stronger than ever before. The noble Lord, Lord Triesman, asked what leverage we have. I would say that all of the above are opportunities for us to leverage and make that relationship respond better.

I take this opportunity to applaud the recent elections in Pakistan. The elections on 11 May were a crucial milestone in Pakistan’s democratic history. It is the first time that power has transferred democratically between one civilian Government and another after a full term. I welcome the strengthening and laying down of deep roots of democracy in Pakistan. These elections were among the most credible in Pakistan’s history. There was an improved electoral register and the highest ever number of female and new voters. To protect that credibility, we hope that all allegations of malpractice will be thoroughly investigated.

Pakistan’s elections have strengthened democracy and the voice of the Pakistani people. They have given the incoming national and provincial Governments a clear mandate to meet the very significant challenges that Pakistan confronts, which we would like to help Pakistan in meeting. The new Government, whatever their make-up, will face some real challenges in their first 100 days, including a very difficult economic situation and critical energy shortfalls. We encourage all political parties to work together to use the start of the new parliamentary term to tackle the country’s problems.

The UK is committed to working closely with Pakistan on these challenges. Where appropriate, we can share our experience of the need for tough decisions to deliver future growth and prosperity. Our friendship and close ties mean that we feel Pakistan’s losses deeply. As was said by many noble Lords today, Pakistan has lost a shocking 40,000 civilians in the battle against terrorism and extremism. We feel the sacrifices that Pakistan has made, and we feel for the people who continue to make those sacrifices, specifically the minorities that suffer violence and discrimination. I have seen at first hand the positive impact of Pakistan’s minority communities on society. The focus of my visit to Pakistan in January last year was to meet and show solidarity with the Christian community in Karachi. I was able to meet the Archbishop of Karachi and see the inspirational work of Sister John Berchmans Conway, a nun from Ireland who has lived in Karachi for most of her life educating the next generation of young girls in Pakistan. She recalled fondly her memories of teaching the late Benazir Bhutto. I am delighted that she has been awarded a civil order by the Pakistan state for her contribution; it is well deserved.

In March, however, in a shocking incident of religious violence, rioters targeted a poor Christian community in the Joseph Colony neighbourhood of Lahore, damaging property and forcing people out of their homes. At the time, I discussed the attacks in detail with Paul Bhatti, who was then Pakistan’s Minister for National Harmony and Minority Affairs and is, of course, the brother of the tragically assassinated Shahbaz Bhatti. I expressed my sympathy and pledged our ongoing support in tackling sectarianism and religious persecution. Those riots were sparked by an allegation of blasphemy against one member of the Christian community. The blasphemy laws remain a highly sensitive subject in Pakistan. Indeed, some of those who have called for its reform have been tragically targeted by extremists, as my noble friend Lord Hussain mentioned in his speech

The infamous blasphemy laws are frequently misused against both non-Muslims and Muslims, a point that I continue to stress. I will make sure that we continue to raise the issue and that we carry on working closely with civil society in Pakistan and with groups in the UK to encourage interfaith dialogue. This is a sensitive issue, but that will never deter us from raising it. We will continue to do so at every opportunity.

I had the privilege of sharing dinner with Shahbaz Bhatti only weeks before his assassination. We talked about the work that we were going to do together, and I am pleased that, despite that tragedy, his brother Paul Bhatti, who has been in government, will continue to work with me. However, it is only right that those who assassinated Shahbaz Bhatti are brought to justice, and we will continue to raise the issue at every opportunity.

The Christian community is not alone in being targeted. I am increasingly concerned about attacks on Shia Muslims, in particular those of the Hazara community. I was saddened by the bombings in Quetta and Karachi earlier this year which killed many innocent members of the Hazara community. Such acts of sectarian violence demonstrate an appalling contempt for religion and for human life. However, this year is not a one-off and, as Human Rights Watch and others have highlighted, violent attacks against Shia Muslims have been on the increase. Moreover, the violence is not isolated to Shia Muslims. We have also seen terrible attacks on Sunni mosques in the Malakand district. We have condemned those attacks. As the Prime Minister has said, when it comes to terrorism, Pakistan’s enemy is our enemy.

Continuing discrimination against the Ahmadi community remains a matter of concern. We have again expressed these concerns in this year’s Annual Human Rights and Democracy Report, as we did during the universal periodic review at the UN Human Rights Council last October. Of course, I had the benefit of the great expertise of my noble friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, who is sitting with me during this debate.

The noble Lord, Lord Alton, asked when we last raised the case of Asia Bibi. I referred to the case directly last year with Shahbaz Sharif, then the chief minister of Punjab, who is tipped to be the chief minister again, and who is, of course, the brother of the potential future Prime Minister. They are powerful figures who are now in position in government and thus able, it is hoped, to take these matters further.

My noble friend Lord Hussain asked about the aid being provided to Pakistan. Over the next four years, we will support 4 million children in schools, many of them girls. In the light of the Malala Yousafzai case, we can see why support for education is so important. We are also supporting programmes that allow women to access credit, prevent mothers dying in childbirth and provide practical job training for tens of thousands of people. Pakistan could become the UK’s largest recipient of aid, averaging up to £350 million a year, but this increase is dependent on securing value-for-money results. It will also be linked to the Pakistan Government’s progress on reform at federal and provincial levels, including taking tangible steps to build a dynamic economy, strengthen the tax base and tackle corruption. As I have said before, it cannot be right that the taxes of the people of this country are used to support the poor in Pakistan when the rich in that country refuse to pay their taxes. UK aid is helping to address the underlying grievance that creates an environment in which extremism can flourish. It tackles inequality and promotes social justice.

The noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, raised the MQM and Altaf Hussain. Again, I am saddened by the recent outbreak of violence in Karachi, including the assassination of Zahra Hussain, a respected and popular political figure. The UK Government strongly condemn all acts of violence in Karachi, and we sympathise deeply with the victims, their families and all the law-abiding citizens of the city. The noble Lord referred specifically to the role of the MQM in the violence. Let me reassure noble Lords and the many members of the public who have written in that there is no place for the incitement of hatred or violence in the UK, and we have strict laws in place to deal with it. The Metropolitan Police has received an unprecedented number of complaints about alleged comments made by Mr Altaf Hussain. It is now formally investigating those comments and in due course it will take appropriate action.

In conclusion, it is in all our interests for Pakistan to be stable and prosperous. Religious tolerance is vital for peace and prosperity to flourish in that country, and the UK is committed to supporting efforts to achieve that. The British Government will continue to stress the importance of improving religious tolerance with the newly elected Government in Pakistan. Lastly, I apologise for breaking my record and not sticking to the time.