Persecuted Pakistani Muslim minority seek refuge in China

Persecuted Pakistani Muslim minority seek refuge in China
A security official and members of the Hindu community stand inside a temple that was attacked in Larkana, located in Pakistan's Sindh province.

SANHE, China - Fleeing discrimination and violence, members of a Muslim sect have abandoned their homes in Pakistan to find an unlikely refuge in China.

"Every day I heard the sound of guns," said a 37-year-old surnamed Saeed of his former home Lahore, Pakistan's second city.

"We prayed every day, because we felt something could happen to us at any time." He is one of hundreds of people who have sought asylum in China in recent years, often from conflict and violence-stricken countries including Iraq and Somalia.

The government tolerates their presence but provides almost no support, while human rights groups have for years condemned Beijing for deporting tens of thousands of asylum seekers who enter it to escape oppression in North Korea and Myanmar.

Around 35 of the almost 500 UN-registered asylum seekers and refugees currently in China are Ahmadi Muslims - a sect which believes their 19th century founder Ghulam Ahmad to be a prophet, and that Jesus Christ died aged 120 in Srinagar, in Indian-ruled Kashmir.

They are among the most persecuted minorities in Pakistan - a constitutional Islamic republic which bans them from calling themselves Muslims or going on the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.

In 2010 militants stormed two Ahmadi prayer halls, killing 82 worshippers in gun and grenade attacks, before targeting a hospital where victims were being treated. Ahmadi mosques and graveyards are regularly desecrated.

Even high-achieving Ahmadis have been shunned, including physics professor Abdus Salam, Pakistan's only Nobel laureate.

China is regularly condemned by the US State Department for its restrictions on religious freedom, which analysts say are key elements of the tensions it faces in Buddhist-majority Tibet and mainly Muslim Xinjiang.

But Saeed, who arrived four years ago, said: "From a security point of view, China is good.

"There is almost no terrorism compared to Pakistan, where there is killing and persecution of minorities every day," he told AFP in a rented apartment in Sanhe, a city outside Beijing where clumps of high-rise apartment blocks overshadow restaurants offering donkey meat burgers.

Two of his cousins were killed in the 2010 attack, he added.

'Pakistan was dangerous'

The Ahmadi refugees in Sanhe said they paid middle-men up to US$3,000 (S$3750) each for Chinese visas - more than twice the average yearly income in Pakistan.

Once in China, Saeed said, "You have to do everything for yourself." He lives off overseas family donations and added: "I don't expect anything from the Chinese."

New arrivals receive no benefits unless the UN grants them refugee status after a gruelling 18-month series of tests and even then China refuses to integrate them, denying them the right to work while they wait for acceptance from a third country, often for years.

"In this kind of a situation, you can't enjoy life much," said Saeed.

But teenager Laiba Ahmad, who arrived around two years ago with her mother and several siblings, had no doubts, even though she does not have enough Chinese to attend school.

"I am happy here compared with Pakistan," she said.

"Pakistan was dangerous. We could not go outside without our brothers and fathers, if you are a woman especially."

On a recent afternoon around 10 refugees gathered in Saeed's flat for an English lesson. Practising the present tense, they called out descriptions of their jobless lives.

"We play football daily," offered Ahsan Ahmad, 22, who fled Pakistan after mullahs attacked two of his uncles.

"We offer prayer daily," said another student.

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