The construction of the first Hindu temple complex in Islamabad was intended to be a powerful symbol of tolerance towards Pakistan’s largest non-Muslim religious minority.
Instead, it has become yet another example of persistent discrimination faced by the beleaguered Hindu community in Pakistan, a Muslim-majority South Asian nation of 220 million people.
Weeks after the first foundation stones were laid, the government capitulated to pressure from Islamic hard-liners to halt work on the temple complex. Days after the government’s decision, it was torn down by a Muslim mob.
“Those who oppose the construction of the temple are extremists,” says Om Parhar, the head of the Pakistan Hindu Ithad, an Islamabad-based organization that defends the rights of Hindus. “I want to tell them that Hindus are also Pakistanis.”
Religious discrimination and violence have increased in Pakistan, a mainly Sunni-Muslim country, with attacks against Shi’a, Christians, Hindus, and Sikhs in recent years.
Numbering an estimated 8 million, Pakistan’s Hindu community has become the target of the rising violence. Hindu burial grounds, temples, and homes have all come under attack.
The community says authorities have done little to stem the assaults.
In June, Prime Minister Imran Khan approved the disbursement of about $1.3 million in government funds for the construction of the temple complex, a long-standing demand of Islamabad’s estimated 3,000-strong Hindu community.
The complex was to include a crematorium, accommodation for visitors, a community hall, and a large area for parking.
Khan, who came to power in 2018, had vowed to protect freedom of religion for the country’s religious minorities.
“I want to warn our people that anyone in Pakistan targeting our non-Muslim citizens or their places of worship will be dealt with strictly,” Khan said in February. “Our minorities are equal citizens of the country.”
Khan announced his government was hoping to restore some 400 Hindu temples across the country as part of its plan to showcase the heritage of minorities, particularly Hindus and Sikhs.
The plan to build the Islamabad temple complex was approved in 2017 under former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. But construction has been delayed until this year by administrative barriers.
The first foundation stones of the Shri Krishna Mandir, or Krishna temple, were laid during a ceremony on June 23. The development was welcomed by rights activists and Hindus.
'Against The Spirit Of Islam'
But the move provoked a severe backlash from hard-line Islamic clerics, politicians, and even media outlets that launched a public campaign to scupper the project.
Critics said a Hindu temple should not be built in the Islamic country and should not be funded by taxpayer money.
The Pakistan Muslim League Quaid-e Azam (PLM-Q), a small centrist political party in Khan’s ruling coalition, said the temple project should be cancelled, claiming it was “against the spirit of Islam.”
The Jamia Ashrafia, an Islamic institution based in Pakistan’s eastern city of Lahore, issued a fatwa, or Islamic decree, against the temple’s construction, stating it was “non-permissible” under Islam.
Facing growing pressure, the government on July 3 reversed its pledge to fund the project.
The government then halted work on a wall that was being built around the temple’s plot of land. Days later, on July 5, an angry mob tore down the wall.
But an Islamabad court on July 7 dismissed a set of petitions that sought to stop the construction of the temple.
The government has referred the issue to the Council of Islamic Ideology, the country's top Islamic guidance body. The council is expected to announce its recommendations in September -- including whether the temple can be constructed and if public funds can be used.
Religious Affairs Minister Pir Noorul Haq Qadri claimed that the Capital Development Authority, responsible for providing municipal services in Islamabad, halted work on the temple because it had yet to approve the blueprints.
He told lawmakers that the government would “fully safeguard the rights of the religious minorities.”
But Islamic hard-liners have continued to push for the project to be scrapped.
“Islam does not permit the construction of a new place of worship by religious minorities in a Muslim country,” claimed Maulana Amir Zaman, a member of a faction of the Jamiat-e Ulema Islam party led by Maulana Fazlur Rehman, a puritanical Islamist.
“And when it comes to the taxpayers’ money, it is absolutely not allowed,” Zaman, a former minister and lawmaker, told RFE/RL. “Only Muslim places of worship can be constructed with that money.”
Parhar, the head of a Hindu organization in Islamabad, said he could not “talk openly” about the issue because of fear of retaliation.
“My question is -- is it only Muslims who pay taxes in Pakistan?” he said.
'Act Of Bigotry'
Mehdi Hassan, the head of Pakistan’s Human Rights Commission, told RFE/RL it was the “government’s responsibility to ensure the minorities’ rights.”
“The majority of Pakistanis do not oppose the construction of the Hindu temple in Islamabad,” Hassan said. “Those who do not accept minority rights or oppose the construction of non-Muslim places of worship are in the minority.”
Amnesty International said on July 7 that the government’s decision to halt the construction was “an unconscionable act of bigotry that must be reversed immediately.”
“Everyone has a right to freedom of religion or belief, a right that is guaranteed in Pakistan’s constitution and its international obligations,” it said.
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In a landmark speech on religious freedom, Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah said in 1947: “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or any other place of worship in the state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed -- that has nothing to do with the business of the state.”
But for the past four decades, Pakistan’s political and military elite have promoted a conservative Islamic identity in the country.
Religious minorities have become increasingly marginalized as the spread of Islamic Shari'a law has resulted in discriminatory legislation and excluded non-Muslims from the mainstream.
Human rights groups say the Hindu community faces increasing marginalization.
They say Pakistan's controversial blasphemy laws make it dangerous for non-Muslim religious minorities to express themselves freely or engage openly in religious activities.
Blasphemy is a highly serious and sensitive charge, and even unproven allegations can lead to vigilante justice and violence by lynch mobs.
The blasphemy laws prescribe the death penalty for insulting the Islamic Prophet Muhammad or Islam’s Holy Koran.
But rights groups say the blasphemy laws have been consistently misused by Muslims in order to settle a dispute or vendetta with a member of a religious minority.
“In recent years, they have faced increasing marginalization, with individuals facing false accusations of ‘blasphemy’ -- a crime that carries a mandatory death penalty in Pakistan -- attacks on temples and shops, and the horrific abduction, forced conversion, and forced marriage of hundreds of young Hindu women,” Amnesty International says.
In two separate incidents during 2019, Muslim mobs attacked Hindu properties and places of worship in the southern province of Sindh, where the vast majority of the country’s Hindus live.
The mob violence occurred after allegations of blasphemy were raised against a Hindu school principal and a Hindu veterinarian.
Unable to practice their faith freely or to live without fear, a growing number of Hindus are migrating to the neighboring Hindu-majority country of India, Pakistan’s archrival.