‘8m are in open prison’ in Kashmir: Pakistan FM

Qureshi said India feels that its prolonged use of force will break the Kashmiris, ‘but this is a miscalculation.’ (AN photo)
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Updated 13 December 2019

‘8m are in open prison’ in Kashmir: Pakistan FM

  • Qureshi: Global reaction to lockdown muted for strategic, commercial reasons

RIYADH: Four months after Delhi stripped autonomy from Indian-administered Kashmir, the region is paralyzed politically and economically, with communication channels closed and independent observers shut out. 

It is, according to Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, a “hopeless” situation that cannot be remedied until the people “are allowed to speak for themselves.”

In an exclusive interview with Arab News during his official visit to Riyadh on Wednesday, Qureshi said: “Never have people seen such a prolonged curfew — day and night. 

It has paralyzed the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir. Eight million people are in an open prison. They have been denied their fundamental rights. Their religious freedom has been curtailed. People cannot go to mosques to pray on Fridays. Young girls are being molested. Boys are being picked up and tortured to instill fear among the community.”

Qureshi also claimed that so many people had been detained that Kashmir’s prisons are now full, and prisoners are now being airlifted to other regions.

He added that, aside from imperiling basic human rights and civil liberties, the lockdown has also endangered the state’s economy.

“The economy of Jammu and Kashmir is totally crippled,” he said. “In the last three months, they have suffered a loss of over a billion dollars, according to Indian estimates, on account of the drop in tourist activity. So the situation is horrific.”

India revoked the special status granted under Article 370 of the Indian constitution to Jammu and Kashmir on Aug. 5. The move was followed by a swift annexation of Kashmir, with tens of thousands of Indian troops deployed, communication networks shut down, and the state’s public figures detained. On Oct. 31, Kashmir was formally placed under direct federal control and split into two federal territories — Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh — bringing an end to the semi-autonomous rule sanctioned by the UN in 1948.

While the takeover of Kashmir has been seen by many as an act of oppression against India’s Muslim community, Qureshi said all groups in the region are suffering, whether Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist.

“Obviously, the valley is under pressure because of the dominant Muslim population, but even in Ladakh, Jammu, and Kargil, the situation is not good,” he said. “The (Kashmiri) Hindu Pandits think that the measures taken by India on Aug. 5 have reduced their status from an autonomous state to a union territory. People in Ladakh (mostly Buddhists) feel that they have been deprived of representation. Every section of society is unhappy. Kashmiris have never been so alienated as they are today.”  

According to Qureshi, India feels that its prolonged use of force will eventually break the Kashmiris. But in his view this is a miscalculation. 

“The Kashmiris have fought in difficult situations in the past. Look at the struggle of the 1990s — under heavy odds, they kept the movement alive, the movement (for the) right to self-determination, which was promised to them by India through Security Council resolutions.”

He said India has to honor that commitment and give Kashmiris the right to choose. “Let them speak. Let them decide for themselves, and whatever they decide will be acceptable to Pakistan,” Qureshi said.

The minister observed that the international community, despite recognizing that human rights have been violated in Kashmir, “has for strategic reasons and for commercial considerations” not been as vocal about the issue as it should be. 

He added that many are disappointed in the reaction from Muslim-majority countries.

“Kashmiris — and Pakistanis — feel that the reaction in general, in particular the response of the Muslim world, was somewhat muted,” Quershi said. “We are grateful to all the Muslim counties which have been sympathetic to the Kashmiri point of view, but (that is) not enough.”

The situation in Kashmir requires a more forceful response, he said, suggesting that a meeting of the council of foreign ministers of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) should take place “to give the Kashmiri people this message that we are standing with you, and you are not alone.”  

Pressure needs to be put on India to lift the curfew, and to restore communications and fundamental rights, he said, adding that international journalists must be allowed into the region, along with the United Nations Military Observers Group in India, to assess the situation.  

“The immediate requirement is lifting the curfew. The immediate requirement is restoring fundamental rights. The immediate requirement is allowing children to go to school. The immediate requirement is that if you are sick, you can go to the hospital, or if there is an emergency at night, you can get an ambulance,” Qureshi said. “At the moment, all that is a dream; all that is being denied.” 



S. Korean Christians facing ‘unprecedented challenge’ over virus spread claims: Church cleric

Updated 24 September 2020

S. Korean Christians facing ‘unprecedented challenge’ over virus spread claims: Church cleric

  • South Korean churches have been accused of ‘deliberately hampering’ COVID-19 response while groups say they are being made ‘scapegoats’

SEOUL: South Korean church leader, Rev. Lee Byung-seok, has become battle-weary over the country’s fight against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

The cleric, who preaches at a small church in Suwon, in northwestern Gyeonggi province, has faced a tough time fending off claims that Christians were the main culprits for spreading the deadly virus.

Since the first case of COVID-19 was reported in February, the religious community has been in the firing line for allegedly propagating the disease in the east Asian country which has to date recorded 23,216 cases and 388 deaths.

“The Christian sect in South Korea faces an unprecedented challenge,” the pastor told Arab News on Wednesday.

“Imagine police bursting into the chapel where prayers are at church, and the officer saying he’s responding to a call from a citizen who disbelievingly reported the church’s breach of a ban on gatherings. This happens at many churches. Except for a few churches, most have been observing health rules despite emotional and financial losses. Enforcing these restrictions upon all churches is too far,” he said.

Gatherings at churches have been tightly controlled by the South Korean government to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Under updated quarantine rules adopted on Sept. 20, up to 50 worshippers are allowed to attend churches with a seating capacity of 300 or more. Smaller churches can only take a maximum congregation of 20.

The Sarang Jeil Church, in the capital Seoul, has been at the center of the controversy over claims that Christians were to blame for spreading COVID-19 in South Korea after hundreds of cases were linked to the religious group and the church’s pastor, Jun Kwang-hoon, led a massive anti-government rally on Aug. 15, the country’s Liberation Day.

“The Sarang Jeil Church does not represent the sentiment of the Christian sect here, and the church has been already politicalized to affect other churches,” Lee said.

Health authorities said that the protests in central Seoul, where tens of thousands of Jun’s followers had converged, triggered a second wave of COVID-19 resulting in nearly 1,200 infections in the capital area.

A conservative pastor, believed to be popular among opposition politicians, Jun was accused of “defying health rules” to hold services and anti-government protests, while some of his churchgoers were criticized for refusing to take part in COVID-19 testing.

The situation led to President Moon Jae-in vowing to hold churches accountable for impeding government efforts to contain the disease.

“Certain churches have refused the government’s quarantine guidelines and hindered efforts to tackle the virus spread,” he said during a meeting with representatives of 16 churches and related groups on Aug. 27.

“Prayers or services may bring peace of mind but cannot protect people from the virus. The quarantine is not the domain of God but that of science and medicine,” he added. Jun tested positive for the virus two days after the Aug. 15 demonstration and was jailed after his bail was revoked.

The cleric was also detained earlier this year on charges of violating election laws after he called the president a “North Korean spy.” He was later released on conditional bail which included a ban on him attending political rallies or protests.

On Sept. 18, the Seoul city government sued Jun and his Sarang Jeil Church for nearly $3.9 million in damages related to the COVID-19 cluster “connected to its adherents.”

The city said in a statement that Jun had deliberately hampered its response to the virus outbreak by “refusing to observe health rules and submitting fake records.”

Meanwhile, statistics from the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) showed that at least 1,168 positive patients had been traced to the church cluster.

The numbers were second only to those linked to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, often regarded as a nationwide cult organization, whose 5,200 cases were at the center of the country’s first wave of infections in February.

“We will take all possible measures to prove the damages incurred by Rev. Jun’s illegal activities that caused damages to the ordinary citizens,” Hwang In-shik, spokesman for the Seoul city government, told Arab News on Wednesday.

He said citizens had faced many difficulties due to the introduction of enhanced social distancing measures following a recent resurgence of cases, as well as the negative impact of the outbreak on the national economy.

“This is a matter of quarantine for the sake of people’s health, not oppressing a certain religion nor a church,” he added.

However, the Presbyterian church has remained defiant, arguing that the left-leaning Moon administration had made it a “scapegoat” for political reasons.

“A key reason why the Moon administration oppresses us is that Jun and his followers have taken the lead in striking Moon’s communist policies,” Kang Yeon-jae, a spokeswoman for Jun, told Arab News.

“We advocate the liberal democracy, which is not a path Moon takes. In this ideological conflict of a free world versus communism, our church is taking the bullet when few stand against Moon’s political blunders and pro-North Korean policies.”

South Korean Protestant churches have deep roots with the US, as American missionaries brought the religion to Korea.

Many of the megachurches in South Korea were founded by Protestants who fled communist persecution in North Korea before the 1950-53 Korean War and benefited from postwar aid from Americans.