Disputed design of religion

ISLAMABAD — Last week, a group of police officers in the eastern city of Lahore visited a mosque run by Ahmadis, a minority Muslim sect viewed by the rest of the country as heretics. They took a look around and announced their conclusion: This mosque looks too much like a mosque.

So, two laborers who accompanied the police picked up their hammers and chisels and began removing Koranic verses etched over the building’s doorway, said Shahid Ataullah, a spokesman for the Ahmadi community in Lahore. The officers also told the Ahmadi clerics who run the mosque that the building’s minarets — the tall, spindly towers synonymous with mosque architecture — had to be covered up.

“For 28 years, this building has been here, and suddenly someone says this place looks too much like a mosque,” Ataullah said. “We can’t agree to this. This is fundamental to our beliefs. But we are told this is what the law is. And the cops say if we don’t do this, there will be rioting.”

The Ahmadi community in Pakistan, believed to number about 4 million, is one of the country’s most persecuted minorities. Because they revere another prophet as well as the prophet Muhammad, the Pakistani government regards Ahmadis as “non-Muslims.” It’s a crime for members to use the term “mosque” to refer to their places of worship, and they are barred from uttering the common Muslim greeting, “salaam aleykum.”

Ahmadis are also a prime target for Pakistan’s myriad extremist groups. Kidnappings and murders of Ahmadis are common, and Ahmadi members complain that police rarely show interest in pursuing suspects. The Ahmadi community suffered a devastating blow in May 2010, when Pakistani Taliban gunmen stormed two Ahmadi mosques in Lahore and killed more than 90 people in a blitz of suicide bombings, gunfire and grenades.

Ataullah says a Lahore Muslim cleric recently learned of the Koranic verse etchings at the Ahmadi mosque and complained to police, citing a law that bars Ahmadis from “directly or indirectly posing as a Muslim.” A conviction could mean a jail term of up to three years. The roughly 60 Ahmadi Pakistanis who belong to the mosque decided against putting up a fight. Members allowed the etchings to be removed, and then encased the minarets with sheet metal and tiling.

“We said, ‘Whether we agree or disagree doesn’t matter — you’re going to do it anyway,’ ” Ataullah said. “‘We won’t stop you or oppose you. But we don’t approve of this.’ ”


–Alex Rodriguez

Photo: Laborers remove etchings of Koranic verses over a doorway to an Ahmadi mosque in Lahore. Credit: Shahid Ataullah

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