International

Rabwah, a sanctuary for Pakistan’s persecuted Ahmadis

Safe zone: Students near their school in the Ahmadi-populated city of Rabwah, Pakistan.

Safe zone: Students near their school in the Ahmadi-populated city of Rabwah, Pakistan.   | Photo Credit: MOHSIN RAZA

The city has a veneer of calm, even affluence, at odds with the growing hatred against the sect elsewhere in the country

It was a Tuesday afternoon in Rabwah but the sprawling halls of Masjid-e-Aqsa, the largest mosque of the Ahmadi sect in Pakistan, stood empty.

Though Ahmadi beliefs are deeply rooted in Islam, orthodox Muslims consider them heretical. The Pakistan Constitution declared them non-Muslims after anti-Ahmadi riots in 1974, and a 1984 ordinance forbade their “posing as Muslims” — performing the Muslim call to prayer, publicly using Islamic greetings, disseminating religious literature or even calling their places of worship mosques.

The legal changes have left the sect particularly vulnerable, and attacks on Ahmadi businesses, places of worship and graveyards are common. Since twin attacks on Ahmadi mosques in Lahore in 2010 left 93 people dead, Rabwah’s Masjid-e-Aqsa, where 20,000 people would gather at a time, has been abandoned for smaller neighborhood mosques.

Spectre of violence

“The congregations were a time to meet friends, catch up and laugh,” Amir Mehmood, who works in the community’s press office, said as he walked through the mosque’s echoing halls. “Now this emptiness, it makes my heart weep.”

A tenuous sense of security holds in Rabwah even as the spectre of violence hovers just outside the city walls. It is filled with those who have suffered decades of violence. Some are here to find sanctuary. Others are waiting to flee abroad.

The sect moved its headquarters to Pakistan from India in 1948, purchased a barren stretch of desert land from the government and resolved to populate it. Thus was Rabwah born.

Today the city contains about 70,000 Ahmadis. The roads are paved and lined with greenery. An Olympic-size swimming pool, state-of-the-art library, free eye and blood banks and a world-class cardiology hospital have been set up. Much of the community is affluent, and the literary rate is over 85%.

The city of Rabwah — where portraits of the Ahmadi sect’s turbaned founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, are ubiquitous — has a veneer of calm, even affluence, that is at odds with the growing hatred against the sect elsewhere in the country. After nightfall, children play cricket in well-kept parks while their fathers gather around coal heaters. Others can be seen walking back from school, bowed under the weight of colourful knapsacks.

Rabwah’s few, overcrowded schools must run on two shifts — morning and evening — to make sure everyone gets an education.

Protective measures

Yet, hardliner Muslims come to Rabwah, too. When the annual processions to mark Eid Milad-un Nabi, birthday celebrations for the Prophet Muhammad, roll through the city, authorities warn Ahmadis to shut their businesses and lock themselves inside their homes, as procession leaders hurl “unrepeatable” expletives against Ahmadi leaders and declare them “worthy of being murdered.”

“We have to cover our children’s ears, lock them up in the backrooms, put the TV on really loud,” said Farhat Ata, a teacher at Rabwah’s Maryam Siddiqa School, whose library has no Qurans or Ahmadi literature. “The hardest question I have to answer as an educator and as a mother is: Why is this happening to us? And why can’t we fight back?”

No Ahmadis are employed in government departments or the police, or represented in local government. The small city provides few job opportunities, and Ahmadis from Rabwah are turned away when they look for work in neighbouring towns.

Mirza Khursheed Ahmad, who heads the Ahmadi missions in Pakistan and whose grandfather founded the sect, had the tired, phlegmatic air of someone who has seen it all. But good humour underpinned his manner.

“After the 1974 riots, when people fled to Rabwah, our caliph would say no matter what happens, don’t let them take away your laughter,” he said as he fixed the pin on his lapel, the black-and-white flag of the sect. “So no, you cannot rob me of my smile.” NY Times

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Printable version | May 29, 2020 1:40:15 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/rabwah-a-sanctuary-for-pakistans-persecuted-ahmadis/article22321207.ece

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