By Amjad Ali
Islamabad, July 14 (efe-epa).- The first Hindu temple in the Pakistani capital, hailed by the government as a sign of religious tolerance, has now turned into a symbol of intolerance and discrimination after the shrine’s construction was halted amid pressure from Islamist groups in the Muslim-majority country.
The government of Prime Minister Imran Khan had pledged to finance the construction of the Shri Krishna Mandir, or Krishna temple, and a foundation stone was laid at the end of last month.
The temple complex, was set to include a prayer area, crematorium, accommodation for visitors, a community hall and a parking space spread across an area of over 2,000 square meters (around half an acre).
However, just 10 days after construction began, work was stopped and police was deployed after Islamists vandalized the foundation and posted videos on social media challenging the government’s support for the project, situated in the center of Islamabad.
Religious clerics have issued two fatwas – religious decrees – against building the temple saying Pakistan is a Muslim country and tax payers’ money cannot be spent on Hindus. However, a third fatwa issued by Shia clerics supported the construction of the temple.
A section of the internet users has also denounced the project and its use of public funds, while some media outlets – including broadcaster 93 News TV – openly campaigned for it to be shut down.
The project was also challenged in court with three separate complaints, but all were dismissed by judicial authorities.
The government has sent the matter to the Council of Islamic Ideology, an advisory body, for guidance on whether tax payer money can be spent on a Hindu temple, despite officially backing the project along with the main opposition parties.
Non-profit Amnesty International urged Pakistan to allow the temple saying everyone has a right to freedom of religion or belief, which is guaranteed in Pakistan’s constitution and under its international obligations.
Halting construction of the temple “is an unconscionable act of bigotry that must be reversed immediately,” the human rights watchdog tweeted on July 7.
Lal Chand Malhi, a Hindu lawmaker of the ruling Tehreek-i-Insaf party told EFE how a Hindu organization had met the prime minister and convinced him that this project “will bring us a soft image” and that Khan was “quite happy (about it).”
“We wanted to show the world that we are free in Pakistan when it comes to practicing our religion,” he said.
In a meeting with the prime minister, the body had sought funds worth $2.8 million for the project and Khan had pledged over $560,000 for the first phase.
Malhi, who is also a parliamentary secretary for human rights, was among the members of the Hindu group who inaugurated the foundation stone of the temple.
“There has been an emotional reaction and we have stopped construction. It has been shocking,” Malhi said in his Islamabad office.
He referred to the guarantees for freedom of worship in the country’s 1973 constitution and expressed hope that the project will resume.
Improving the situation of minorities – who represent only 4 percent of the country’s 207-million population – was a key campaign promise of Khan when he came to power in 2018.
However, in addition to showing Pakistan in a new “tolerant” light, the temple is also meant to serve a more practical purpose: the nearly 3,000 Hindus in the city do not have a place to offer worship or conduct funeral rites.
The two ancient temples in the city have been closed for worship by authorities since the country’s independence in 1947.