At Hindu temple, Pakistan PM reaches out to minorities

Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (L) atends a ceremony at 900-year-old Katas Raj temples, one of the holiest sites for Hindus, in district Chakwal, Katas Raj, Pakistan, on Wednesday. (REUTERS/Drazen Jorgic)
Updated 11 January 2017
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At Hindu temple, Pakistan PM reaches out to minorities

KATAS, Pakistan: Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Wednesday inaugurated the restoration of an ancient Hindu temple complex in Punjab, a symbolic gesture that may appeal to the Muslim nation’s minority communities and soften the country’s image abroad.
However, the visit and other recent overtures to minority faiths and women, including the passing of pro-women legislation, could also alienate powerful religious hard-liners opposed to social change.
Sharif’s visit to the 900-year-old Katas Raj temples, one of the holiest sites in South Asia for Hindus, comes at a time when relations with Pakistan’s Hindu-majority neighbor India are at a low ebb and show few signs of improving.
“In my personal view, we are all are equal — Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians — and people belonging to other religions; we are all one,” Sharif told Reuters after a Hindu ritual was performed at the temples, located in the village of Katas some 110 km (70 miles) south of the capital Islamabad.
At the ceremony, attended by senior Christian, Sikh and Hindu leaders, Sharif chastised hard-line Muslim scholars who use “strange interpretations” of Islam to preach hate against other religions.
“I believe this is not lawful. No one should try to teach this sort of lesson, nor should anyone heed such lessons,” Sharif said.
Critics say Sharif’s government has not done enough to tackle hard-line religious groups inside Pakistan, including some with militant links, and accuse members of the ruling PML-N party of maintaining links with sectarian hard-liners.
Pakistani officials want to improve the country’s image, marred by religious violence and the persecution of minorities, in a bid to lure Western investors who are reluctant to come despite healthy economic growth and improving security.
“Pakistan’s image, economy, foreign investment, security — they are all interlinked,” said an aide to the prime minister.

Elections next year
Political analysts say Sharif’s visit to the Katas Raj temples was part of an effort to reach out to minority groups ahead of a general election scheduled for 2018, and would also appeal to more liberal, urban voters in Pakistan.
Non-Muslims make up only about three percent of the 190 million population, but they are clustered and their votes could swing some seats in the provinces of Punjab and Sindh.
Last month, Sharif re-named a university in honor of Abdus Salam, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who was shunned for decades as he hailed from the small Ahmadiyya community.
A mob of about 1,000 people attacked and burned an Ahmadiyya mosque a few days after the renaming, although it is not clear whether the two events were related.
Sharif’s attempt to burnish progressive credentials comes at a time when his party is confident it can retain power next year, boosted by the economic benefits from China’s $57 billion investment in road, rail and energy infrastructure.
The government has in the past year passed a bill that removed a loophole in existing law that allowed people convicted of so-called “honor killings” to walk free if they were pardoned by family members.
The provincial government of Punjab, which is run by Sharif’s bother Shebhaz, also enacted the Women’s Protection Act, giving women legal protection from domestic, psychological and sexual violence.
“Only a person who is secure about his vote bank can do that,” said Nadeem Paracha, a columnist for the English-language Dawn newspaper.
Huma Yusuf, an analyst for London-based Control Risks, said Sharif was “testing the boundaries” by pushing a more progressive agenda on issues that appeal to young urban voters, but added this would not herald drastic changes.
“PML-N knows Pakistan very well, so they are unlikely to push the boundaries too much,” she said.


Fears mount in Pakistan over military’s election powers

Updated 9 min 51 sec ago
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Fears mount in Pakistan over military’s election powers

  • Analysts warn powers granted for military overseeing of election polls could erode trust in the tense contest
  • The 'magisterial powers' effectively make them judge and jury to punish individuals for illegal acts

ISLAMABAD: Fears have mounted over wide-ranging powers granted to military units overseeing Pakistan’s polling stations when the country votes Wednesday, with opposition parties and analysts warning the move could erode trust in the tense contest.
The Pakistan military will station over 370,000 troops nationwide to ensure the vote goes smoothly, the largest such deployment in the country’s history on an election day.
The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) later said military officers would also be given magisterial powers, effectively making them judge and jury to punish individuals for illegal acts committed inside polling stations.
“I don’t know why they have given these powers, because that will unnecessarily create doubts in the minds of people,” retired general and security analyst Talat Masood told AFP.
“I don’t think these powers have ever been granted.”
Election observers also questioned the move, and said there was rising anxiety over the large military presence at the polls.
“A lot of our interlocutors, and I would dare to say most of them, they raise serious concerns regarding the role of the military,” said Dimitra Ioannou, deputy chief observer of the European Union Election Observation Mission.
Last week, Sherry Rehman — opposition leader in the Senate, the parliament’s upper house — said the move could lead to potential conflicts and confusion. Raza Rabbani, another high-profile senator, demanded a clarification from the ECP.
The ECP said Sunday the presence of troops at polling stations is meant to ensure a “free and fair election.”
The military — which has ruled the country for roughly half its 70 year history — remains Pakistan’s most powerful institution and has a long history of meddling in politics and judicial affairs — a charge it denies.
“It would be difficult to call the elections free and fair,” Ibn Abdur Rehman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan told AFP Monday, following a press conference on media censorship during the campaign season.
The controversy comes as increasing militant attacks on campaign events in the last month have raised fears that insurgents may target voters.
Three candidates have been killed in attacks at political events this month, including a member of cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party in a suicide attack on Sunday.
And on Monday, authorities announced an increased death toll — 153 — for an earlier attack on a rally in the town of Mastung in southwestern Balochistan province, making it the second-deadliest terror attack in Pakistan’s history.
The increasingly bitter contest is expected to be a tight race between jailed former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s incumbent Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party and Khan’s PTI.