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US Religious Freedom Commission to Pakistan: Protect Your Sikhs

http://www.sikhnn.com
March 03 , 2010

 

The Taliban’s beheading of a Sikh in Peshawar for refusing to convert to Islam has prompted the United States religious freedom commission to call on the Pakistani government to protect its Sikh and other religious minorities.

Jaspal Singh, 29, and two others, Surjeet Singh and Gurvinder Singh, were kidnapped in the afternoon of Jan. 11. Jaspal Singh’s body was found on the night of Feb. 20.

“I was horrified to learn of the brutal beheading… by members of the Taliban, and I offer my condolences to the families,” said Knox Thames, policy director of the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom. “There are indications that this was more than a kidnapping for ransom that ended in murder. Some reports indicated it may have also been religiously motivated, as the (victim) may have been beheaded for failing to renounce their religion and convert to Islam.”

United Sikhs, a New York based humanitarian-aid group that has been working with refugees in the area, tells the family’s account of what happened:

The men, all residents of Peshawar in the Northwest Frontier Provence (NWFP), were travelling to visit relatives in the Khyber Agency, in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), when the Taliban kidnapped them. The men’s families kept silent for fear of their safety, and were negotiating a ransom when Jaspal Singh’s body was found.

LAWLESS LAND

FATA is a narrow region that spans north to south, near the northwest border to Afghanistan. Also known as Pakistan’s tribal belt, it contains seven tribal areas called agencies. The Taliban infiltrated the tribal belt from Afghanistan following the American invasion in 2001. It has become a stronghold for the Taliban, especially since last April when the Pakistani government negotiated a truce in exchange for reduced fighting with government forces.

According to the commission’s 2009 report on Pakistan, “…this new development appears to signify the ceding of local control to Taliban-associated extremists who routinely use violence to enforce their political and theological agendas.”

The Taliban took the three men to its “secret hiding places” in the tribal belt, said Kuldip Singh, president of United Sikhs in America. “They were torturing him. There was evidence on the body.”

They forcefully attempted to convert the Sikhs to Islam, but when the men refused, Jaspal Singh was “mercilessly slaughtered,” according to a United Sikhs’ news release. The Taliban beheaded Jaspal Singh in the Upper Tirah Valley region on the border of Khyber and Orakzai agencies, and threw his body on the rocks.

“In the past (two-and-a-half years) there had been kidnappings and abductions, but there was never a beheading,” Kuldip Singh said. “A lot of detailed news not come because Sikhs are minority.”

MEDIA MISTAKES AND OFFICIAL REACTIONS

Media reports of Jaspal Singh’s beheading did not give any accounts of the attempted conversion. It wasn’t until the commission examined the news release that it made a stern statement.

“The Pakistani government must energetically investigate this crime and ensure that the murders are brought to justice,” Thames said by email. “The protection of Pakistani Sikhs and other religious minorities is critical, and no Pakistani, regardless of religion, should have to live in fear.”

The commission is charged with promoting and monitoring religious freedom issues abroad, and makes foreign policy recommendations to the president and Congress.

The State Department would not comment on this incident, but said it “condemns all inhumane acts by the Taliban.”

The Pakistani embassy in Washington, however, maintains that the Taliban killed Jaspal Singh because his family could not pay the ransom, and that it had no evidence of forced conversions.

“I have not heard anything about it (forced conversions),” said Nadeem Kiani, spokesman for the Pakistani embassy. “It (extortion) has been happening to other people in the boarder region. It has no relevance for any people’s religion.” Non-Muslims are kidnapped for ransom, but are often released after paying Rs. 1,000 PKR, he added.

This is jizya – a tax on non-Muslims. The jizya tax is typically Rs. 1,000 PKR ($12 USD) per man, per year, which businessmen can afford. But the ransoms have been insurmountable. In a letter that was found on Jaspal Singh’s body, the Taliban demanded Rs. 20 million PKR ($235,000 USD) for the lives of the other two Sikhs.

The letter also warned relatives and the Sikh community against approaching the media about the details of the killing, or face suicide attacks. But the news was out even before the body was brought back to Peshawar. At first the international media reported that two or even three Sikhs were killed, but it is now saying that the second and third person have not been confirmed.

“They (Taliban) wanted the news out to create fear,” Kuldip Singh said. “This is a lawless land. The biggest thing to survive is to create an atmosphere of fear among minorities, and create international news.

“Everything started with jizya, which was allowed last summer” as part of the truce between the Pakistani government and the militants in the tribal belt, he said. “The killing shows a different indication of security. We have a letter (from the Taliban), and we’re telling the story from the family and friends.”

YEARS OF RELIGIOUS PERSECUTION

In fact, United Sikhs has many stories. It still has volunteers in Pakistan helping refugees from Afghanistan and the tribal areas.

One of the first was of an Afghani Sikh woman who fled to the Swat Valley in the tribal belt with her 16-year-old daughter after the Taliban killed her husband. There, she was again threatened by militants and fled to Peshawar.

Another is a video taped account of Kalyan Singh’s kidnapping about nine months ago. The Taliban demanded Rs. 50 million PKR ($588,000 USD) for his release. He was given three choices: convert, pay the ransom, or fight with them against the coalition forces. He managed to collect Rs. 9.5 million PKR ($112,000 USD) by selling his businesses, getting donations from the local gurdwara and borrowing from his Muslim friends. He was released after 16 days with the caveat that he would bring the rest of the money. The Taliban threatened to kill the children and enslave the women in his family if he didn’t. They escaped to Peshawar in the middle of the night.

“I don’t know how they (Pakistanis) are justifying that this is not religious,” Kuldip Singh said. For the last 18 months, every kidnapping of a minority has had the element of forced conversion.

Kiani also dismissed news reports about minorities fleeing the tribal areas, particularly one from the Agence France-Presse that included an interview with a Sikh who fled the Khyber Agency with nine members of his family, and was living near the Bhai Joga Singh Gurdwara in Peshawar.

“They’re running a parallel government,” the Sikh said of the militants. About 400 Sikh and 57 Hindu families fled the Bara and Tirah towns in the tribal belt.
“Militants need an endless supply of funds for their weapons, communications and training,” the July report said. “Kidnapping, drugs and extortion are typical sources of income. Taxation and protection scams are others, and vulnerable non-Muslims are easy prey.”

Muslims are also fled the area because of extortion and harsh sharia (Islamic) laws. Most of the refugees ended up in government camps, but Sikhs flooded the Peshawar gurdwara and Gurdwara Panja Sahib by the thousands for better facilities and security.

Pakistani and American forces recently began missions in the border areas, and many refugees have returned to their homes. The government had given refugee status, called Internally Displaced Persons, to millions of people from various areas. The status provided government funds and services for resettlement. But not all areas, especially in the tribal belt, received that status. Many Sikh families from those areas such as the Kurram, Khybar and Orakzai agencies remain at the gurdwaras, completely destitute and without any government help.

FAR REACHING CONSEQUENCES

Reminiscent of the religious persecution that Sikhs and the Gurus faced during the Gurus’ times, Jaspal Singh’s beheading has had a tremendous impact on Sikhs around the world.

This incident and the plight of Sikhs in Pakistan “jeopardizes international relationship of all faith-based communities, Kuldip Singh said. “It creates an atmosphere of chaos and unrest in all countries and (pits) groups against each other with hatred toward each other.”

Jaspal Singh leaves behind a wife and four kids. The fate of the other two captives is still unknown.

“As a Sikh, I don’t give up the hope,” Kuldip Singh said. “They (Taliban) need to understand that what they are doing is not good. Taking innocent life will not take them to their goals.”


Article Courtesy of : http://www.sikhnn.com