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Pakistan sect endures persecution

No Pakistani minority is as victimized as the country's 4 million Ahmadis, who believe in Islam but are viewed by the rest of the country as heretics. There are even legal restrictions on them.

July 06, 2010|By Alex Rodriguez, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Faisalabad, Pakistan — Rifles slung over their shoulders, the guards pacing in front of Naeem Masood's fabric shop glower at anyone who walks by. It's not thieves or vandals that Masood is worried about. He needs protection from assassins.

In April, the 29-year-old boyish-faced Pakistani found his father, brother and uncle slumped over in the seats of their car, their faces and chests riddled with more than 60 bullets. All of them were dead, victims of what Ahmadis in their Faisalabad enclave say was a deadly warning from extremists: Renounce your sect or leave the city.

No Pakistani minority is as victimized as the country's 4 million Ahmadis, who believe in Islam but are viewed by the rest of the country as heretics. Because they revere another prophet as well as the prophet Muhammad, the Pakistani government has declared Ahmadis "non-Muslims," made it a crime for members to refer to their places of worship as mosques and even barred them from extending the common Muslim greeting, salaam aleykum.

The Ahmadi community's vulnerability was evident May 28, when Pakistani Taliban gunmen stormed two Ahmadi mosques in Lahore, Pakistan's second-largest city, and killed more than 90 people caught in a maelstrom of gunfire, grenades and suicide bombings.

Though Pakistan is a multiethnic and multilingual society, it has a long history of marginalizing minority groups. Shiite Muslims have been the target of radical Sunni Muslim groups for years. Last year, in the central Punjab city of Gojra, a mob of 1,000 angry Muslims set more than 40 Christian homes ablaze, killing seven people.

The plight of the Ahmadi community, however, provides a window onto the intolerance that permeates Pakistani society. Ahmadis say the risk they face is heightened by the fact that, in a society where hard-line religious parties wield unchallenged clout, they are viewed as traitors to Islam.

Ahmadis consider themselves Muslims but believe that their late-19th century founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, was a prophet of God, a belief viewed as heresy by Pakistani Muslims who regard Muhammad as Islam's final prophet.

The sect's marginalization was set into motion in 1974 when Pakistan's parliament enacted the law branding Ahmadis as non-Muslims. The crackdown on the Ahmadis intensified in the 1980s during the rule of Gen. Zia ul-Haq, who ordered a maximum three-year prison term for any Ahmadi who called himself a Muslim, carried out the Muslim call to prayer or referred to an Ahmadi place of worship as a mosque.

"As a result of Zia's decrees, the state facilitated the mullahs who were already against us," said Syed Mehmood, spokesman for the Ahmadi community in Faisalabad. "That's when the persecution started. Hundreds of Ahmadis were jailed just because they said Salaam aleykum."

Mehmood said the persecution continues today, forcing Ahmadis in Faisalabad to find creative ways to survive. As a result of the killings of the three Ahmadi businessmen in April, along with recent kidnappings and other acts of violence against Ahmadis, community members routinely change their routes to and from home, vary the time of day they arrive and leave work, and lie when asked on the phone about their whereabouts. Many of them have put their social lives — going to parties, meeting friends for lunch or tea — on hold.

At Zaheer Malik's Toyota dealership, a gleaming glass and silver-paneled building out of place amid the cinder-block merchant stalls on the outskirts of Faisalabad, tall, broad-shouldered armed guards stand watch in the parking lot as well as at the foot of the stairs leading to Malik's second-floor office.

Malik, a wealthy Pakistani Ahmadi in his mid-30s, says he has received several threats recently, including one in May in which a man came to the showroom and urged his driver to quit. "They told him, 'Your boss is not a Muslim and we might do something to him,' " Malik said. " 'It'll be better if you leave the job. We don't want you to die with him.'

"For last the month, I can't go to the gym, I can't go anywhere to have dinner, can't go to parties, I just stay home," Malik said. "Every day I'm changing schedules, changing cars. Every day I'm telling someone I'm in Lahore when I'm really in Faisalabad, or I'm in Dubai when I'm actually in Karachi."

Omar Ahmed, 27, keeps a pistol with him at all times and stations armed guards outside his jewelry store. Ahmed took over the shop after his father, Ashraf Pervaiz, was killed in the same hail of bullets that killed Masood's father, Masood Javed, and his brother, Asif Masood. Ahmed says that if he could leave Pakistan, he would. But his predicament is the same as Naeem Masood's: As elder sons, they have to stay for the sake of their families and the family businesses.

"We're in a battlefield every day," Ahmed said. "We have to live with the fact that we are Ahmadis."

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