Scores of Christian children, including many teenagers, have urged the Pakistani government to ensure “equal citizenship rights for minorities” and also demanded that they “stop all forms of discrimination and prejudices against religious minorities and also women in Pakistan.”
The children panelists, who were speaking at a special conference, also demanded that the government “stop forced conversation of girls and women of religious minorities, increase budget allocations for development, and the inclusion of young people in a youth commission.”
A group called Applied Scio-Economic Research (ASR Lahore) organized the “Provincial Children Conference” in Lahore, the capital of the Pakistani province of Punjab, on the concluding day of ASR’s two weeks residential Summer School on “Women Rights and Gender inequality, Minorities Rights and Equal Citizenship rights and Peace & Conflict”
The school was attended by boys and girls, including Christians, Hindus and Muslims, with equal participation.
Ms. Naghat Saeed Khan, director of ASR, Lahore, told ANS, “ASR has been working on ‘Women, Minorities and Peace’ since its existence. We have worked with these groups on various aspects of these topics.
“However, in 2005, an idea evolved that we should start a two weeks residential Summer School with young children. This would give them a chance to have a ‘living experience’ with the serving institutions and organizations for the weaker groups of our society.”
She went on to say, “It was observed that poor Muslims send their children to Islamic Seminaries where food and other necessities are provided to them — but they also get extremist teachings. We tried to have the experience with the children of all religious communities of Pakistan, including Muslim boys and girls, so they can learn to live together, so as to create a spirit of love and understanding amongst each other.”
In two week school, students were taken for exposure visits to different religious places, where religious leaders shared with them about their rituals and teachings.
Similarly, children were taken to Indo-Pak border and then they were asked to talk about peace and issues between the two countries. They visited a museum, children’s library, a hospital and also a theater.
ASR has told ANS that is “very happy” that it has “got a very good response from the various communities.”
The group says that it is now “motivating the Pakistani government to adopt the Summer School model in public schools” as a way “to give an education where all religions, and women, are respected and children are taught to believe in peace, harmony and tolerance,” rather than “gender biases, hatred for other religions, and the stimulation of wars.”
Ms. Naghat Saeed Khan went on to say, “The government can make the best use of the summer holidays in the public schools by conducting the similar schools.”
Some of the child speakers shared their views exclusively for ANS.
Noriaz Javed, 12 told ANS, “In my day-to-day life, I do not see any evidence of discrimination or majority and minority issues, however, when I hear and meet older Christians who shared their stories that they were denied jobs for being a Christian, it hurts me a lot.
“I learned in school that, under the constitution of Pakistan, all citizens are supposed to be equal but, on the other hand, it also states that no person who belongs to a religious minority cannot be a Prime Minister or President of Pakistan. The founding father of the nation, Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, when he addressed the legislative Assembly of Pakistan on August 11, 1948, gave the nation a vision for its citizens where each one would be treated equally. Alas! The rulers have forgotten the vision for a prosperous Pakistan.”
Javed added, “The budget of the Punjab government for religious minorities is not enough. If one looks the budget carefully against what is used for the Muslim population, one can only laugh over the allocation.”
Uzma Munawar, 13, told ANS, that she becomes “frustrated” when she hears stories of the abduction of Christian girls who are then “forcibly” converted to Islam.
“I learned about human rights during school and I now find that I cannot stop myself from speaking out to government officials, telling them to stop these inhuman acts occurring, not just now, but they have been taking place over the past 63 years. Each one has a right to chose the religion of his/her choice and I feel blessed that God has given me the strength to speak out for the rights of women.
“I have also demanded from the Chief Minister of Punjab to allocate a quota for religious minorities as he has already allocated for widows, orphans, persons with disabilities and terrorism-affected people in the projects of low cast housing and free distribution land to build home in rural areas.
“I recently read in the newspapers that the Punjab Chief Minister has formed a Youth Commission for their development, however, I have learned that not a single youth from a religious minority has been taken onto the Commission. If he would add minorities’ youth, they could then share their problems and plans to serve Pakistan.”
Kashish Peter, 11, said, “The religious events of Christians, Muslims, and others have great importance to me and I celebrate them with my friends and my family. I try to learn about them all.
“I, have noticed, however, that whenever there are Islamic festivals, the government spends a lot of tax money to provide relief to the Muslim brothers and sisters, including the illumination of buildings, no matter if there is an energy crisis. But, on the other hand, there is no special relief given to people who belongs to religious minorities.
“Still, I will never lose hope and I promise that I will keep on working to build a strong Pakistan. I pray, that peace may prevail in my country.”
Nighat Saeed Khan studied in the Convent of Jesus and Mary School and she says that she is thankful to her teacher, the Rev. Sister Andrew, who is presently serving in Toba Tek Singh. It was her who envisioned the need to make changes in the lives of the weaker groups of the society. Ms. Khan is the founding member of the Women’s Action Forum (WAF), a group who raised strong voices about the plight of women and minorities during the reign of the former dictator, General Zia-Ul-Haq, and also against his Islamization efforts which affected the religious minorities and women of Pakistan.
Ms. Rafia Salomi, Deputy Director of the Society for Human Development, expressed her joy over the lessons learned and findings of the children who attended the school. Her organization assisted ASR in selecting children from various communities.
“We have been receiving positive feedback from the parents,” she said.
Her own organization has also been working for the weaker groups of the society since 1984 and is an icon of human rights movements in Pakistan.
Ashfaq Fateh, Assist News Service