Pakistan's Ahmadi community living in fear after spate of killings
Four members of the community have been shot dead in the city of Peshawar in recent months
Mahboob Khan was waiting for a bus after visiting his daughter when his assassin struck.
The 82-year-old retired public health official was shot once in the neck at point-blank range and died on the spot.
His killing last week in the Pakistani city of Peshawar left a 70-year-old widow and four children without their father.
For the fearful members of his persecuted Ahmadi sect, the murder of one of their faith was only the latest in a new wave of killings against an already beleaguered community. It was the fourth such killing since the summer and follows decades of persecution of the religious minority.
Community leaders say the attacks have again shown their lack of protection from extremists.
“This is just religious hatred, religious terrorism, extremism,” said one member of the community in Peshawar, who declined to be named for his own safety. “Hatred without any reason, without even knowing the person you are killing.”
“There is definitely a level of anxiety in every Ahmadi family and they feel threatened most of the time going out, or in their jobs, or in their shops, or their place of work.”
The Ahmadis consider themselves to be Muslims, but their recognition of the sect's founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, as a “subordinate prophet” is viewed by many of the Sunni majority as heretical to the Islamic tenet that the Prophet Mohammed was God’s last direct messenger.
Pressure from orthodox Muslim groups has seen Ahmadis' personal and political rights eroded over the years and they face constant discrimination and harassment.
According to Pakistan's constitution and penal code, Ahmadis may not call themselves Muslims, use Islamic terms or customs, and are banned from “insulting the religious feelings of Muslims”.
Rights groups say the religious minority, numbering around half a million in Pakistan, is one of the most relentlessly persecuted communities in the country.
The latest wave of killings began with the brazen shooting of a man on trial for blasphemy inside a Peshawar courtroom on July 29.
Tahir Ahmad Naseem, a Pakistani-American former member of the Ahmadi faith, had been accused of calling himself a prophet.
He was shot six times in what should have been a high-security bail hearing, after his killer apparently smuggled a pistol through three security checks.
The US State Department criticised the killing, urging Pakistan to repeal blasphemy laws to prevent crimes triggered by religious hatred.
Yet the 15-year-old boy charged with the murder has since been feted as a hero. Thousands have rallied for his release, while lawyers compete to represent him. Delegations of well-wishers are reported to have visited his family's home in Peshawar to congratulate them. In a selfie shared widely after his arrest, the teenager poses with police guards, several of them smiling and one giving a thumbs up.
The killing of Naseem, 57, even though he had left the Ahmadi faith, is feared to have again focused attention on the community.
“All Ahmadis in Pakistan are at risk of extremist violence and even targeted campaigns,” said Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch.
“If you look at blasphemy-related violence in Pakistan, it comes in waves. It hits once and then there is attention on the issue. So then you either have people doing copycat attacks, you have people just being reminded that this is something that they can or should do.
"My intuition is that a high-profile killing or incident is often followed by a series of these events. With the Ahmadis the general situation is so awful. They are essentially the easiest community to go after.”
Other attacks on Ahmadis have followed in Peshawar. In August, a gunman shot dead Miraj Ahmed, a 61-year-old medicine trader.
In October, an Ahmadi professor was shot dead as he was driving through the city. Police said Prof Naeemuddin Khattak's killing came the day after he had had a heated argument with a colleague over religion.
“The community is in great stress and very scared nowadays, in Peshawar particularly, because of these killings in the last months,” said Salim ud Din, a national spokesman for the Ahmadi community.
Pakistan's authorities are accused of doing nothing to protect the Ahmadis.
“They just say it's a family murder, it's a property dispute. They can't face the real thing that it's religious hatred,” said the Peshawar community member.
“If they utter a good word for the Ahmadi's they will no longer hold their positions.”
The stigma around the community was highlighted soon after Imran Khan was elected prime minister in 2018. Mr Khan had promised to bring a respected Ahmadi economist, Atif Mian, into his team as an adviser. He was quickly forced to backtrack on the appointment of the Princeton academic under intense pressure from hardline Islamists.
While some of the estimated 200 Ahmadi families in Peshawar are leaving, the community member said, most intended to remain.
“They are holding the fort, they are here. They know things will change. It comes and goes. It came in 1934, it came in 1953, it came in 1974, it came in 1984. Such waves they do come,” he said.
Published: November 14, 2020 01:28 PM