LAHORE, Pakistan - In majority Muslim Pakistan, religious minorities say democracy is killing them.
Intolerance has been on the rise for the past five years under Pakistan's democratically elected government because of the growing violence of Islamic radicals, who are then courted by political parties, say many in the country's communities of Shiite Muslims, Christians, Hindus and other minorities.
On Saturday, the country will elect a new parliament, marking the first time one elected government is replaced by another in the history of Pakistan, which over its 66-year existence has repeatedly seen military rule. But minorities are not celebrating. Some of the fiercest Islamic extremists are candidates in the vote, and minorities say even the mainstream political parties pander to radicals to get votes, often campaigning side-by-side with well-known militants.
More than a dozen representatives of Pakistan's minorities interviewed by The Associated Press expressed fears the vote will only hand more influence to extremists. Since the 2008 elections, under the outgoing government led by the left-leaning Pakistan People's Party, sectarian attacks have been relentless and minorities have found themselves increasingly targeted by radical Islamic militants. Minorities have little faith the new election will change that.
"We are always opposed to martial law (but) during all the military regimes, the law and order was better and there was good security for minorities," said Amar Lal, a lawyer and human rights activist for Pakistan's Hindu community.
About 96 per cent of Pakistan's population of 180 million is Muslim. Most are Sunni, but according to the CIA Factbook about 10 to 15 per cent are members of the Shiite sect. The remaining 4 per cent are adherents to other religions such as Christians, Hindus and Ahmedis — a sect reviled by mainstream Muslims as heretics because they believe a prophet came after Muhammad, defying a basic tenet of Islam that Muhammad was the last prophet. Sunni radicals view Shiite Muslims as apostates.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in a report last month berated the Pakistani government for its poor record of protecting both its minorities and its majority Sunni Muslims and recommended that Pakistan be put on a list of worst offenders, which could jeopardize billions of dollars in U.S. assistance.
"The government of Pakistan continues to engage in and tolerate systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of freedom of religion or belief," the report said. "Sectarian and religiously motivated violence is chronic, especially against Shiite Muslims, and the government has failed to protect members of religious minority communities, as well as the majority faith."
Lal said that in the past three years, 11,000 Hindus living in Pakistan's southwestern Baluchistan province have migrated to India because they were worried about security and frustrated by kidnappings and forced conversions of young Hindu girls to Islam. Pakistan's Hindu minority complains that scores of Hindu girls have been kidnapped, forced to marry their abductor and convert to Islam.
"In Pakistan's southern Sindh province, from every Hindu house, one member of the family has left either for Karachi or for a foreign land," said Lal, who was once a special adviser to Benazir Bhutto, the leader of the Pakistan People's Party until her assassination in December 2007.
"We have lost our hope from the democratic forces because they do everything for money" and nothing for minorities, he said.
Pakistan's Christian communities have complaints as well.
In March, a mob of young Muslims stormed and set fire to nearly 150 homes and shops in the Joseph Christian Colony, a Christian enclave on the outskirts of Lahore, the capital of Punjab, Pakistan's most populous province, where 60 per cent of Pakistanis live and where militant Islamic groups have their headquarters. The mob gathered after one resident was accused of blasphemy, but local people say it was a tiff over money. Most residents fled for their lives, returning the next morning and eventually rebuilding their homes.
On April 30, some radicals attacked 25-year-old resident Babar Ilyas. His injured arm and leg wrapped in bandages, Ilyas told the AP that he was beaten by radicals who warned Christians to leave the area and drop charges against at least two people arrested in connection with the earlier attack.
"We do not have any hope in elections," said Salim Gabriel, a self-declared social worker for Christians and colony resident. "Dictatorship is better for minorities."
Gabriel accused political parties of aligning with radical Islamic groups to get votes, campaigning with well-known militants which he says emboldens radicals among Pakistan's Sunni majority to carry out attacks against minorities with impunity. Minority religious groups fear extremists will piggyback on the backs of mainstream political parties to a position of political power. They most often point to Nawaz Sharif, the head of the Pakistan Muslim League.
In an interview with the AP, Sharif's spokesman Siddiq-ul-Farooqi flatly rejected any links to extremist groups.
"We are a moderate party and have no relationship with extremists," Farooqi said.
Members of the party, however, have been seen on the campaign trail with members of extremist parties like the Ahle Sunat Wal Jamaat, a new name for the outlawed Sunni militant group Sipah-e-Sahabah Pakistan, or SSP. Minority leaders and election monitoring groups say Sharif's party is withdrawing candidates in certain electoral constituencies to give radical religious candidates an unchallenged run for election.
Farooqi denied any accommodation with extremist groups.
But Pakistani politics is rarely straightforward. Sharif's party has fielded several Shiite candidates, even as it rubbed shoulders with militant Islamists who publicly call Shiites apostates deserving of death.
Most of the deadly attacks targeting Shiites in Pakistan have been carried out by a group affiliated with the SSP. Yet the renamed SSP is fighting elections as part of a coalition of six radical religious parties. Maulana Ahmed Ludhianvi, the leader of the SSP and a candidate, said the coalition has 300 candidates running for election. His party placards often hurl abuses at Shiites, calling them kafirs, or non-believers.
The non-believer epitaph is also widely used in reference to Ahmedis, who consider themselves Muslims but have been explicitly declared non-Muslims in Pakistan's constitution. As well as violent attacks on its members, Ahmedi leaders told the AP they have been singled out with a separate electoral roll that identifies them as Ahmedis. The separate list also gives their addresses, making them easy targets. Security was tightened after a brutal attack in 2010 when militants simultaneously hit two Ahmedi mosques in Lahore killing more than 100 people and wounding scores more.
Ahmedis rarely vote in elections because to do so they have to declare they are non-Muslims, says Shahid Ataullah, a spokesman for the Ahmedi community in Lahore.
So virulent is the abhorrence of Ahmedis by Pakistan's religious right-wing parties that many candidates in Saturday's elections have found it necessary to openly declare their view that Ahmedis are non-Muslims.
The country's controversial blasphemy laws are often used to jail Ahmedis for crimes as simple as saying Assalam-o-Allaikum, a traditional greeting among Muslims and often used by non-Muslims living in predominately Muslim countries. It means "May the peace of God be upon you."
Kathy Gannon is AP special regional correspondent for Pakistan and Afghanistan and can be followed on www.twitter.com/kathygannon