They are a visible minority in Pakistan, one of many non-Muslim groups who’ve lived in the country for centuries. This week, though, because of fighting between the Taliban and Pakistan’s military, the Sikhs of Pakistan are fleeing their longtime homes in the country’s northwest. Their very presence is a reminder that Pakistan was founded in 1947 as a secular democracy, albeit one with an overarching Muslim identity.
Christians are another visible minority in Pakistan, with churches dotting neighborhoods in Karachi, Peshawar, Lahore and other cities. More than one million Pakistanis follow some form of Christian denomination. Like Pakistan’s Sikhs, the country’s Christians – at least those living in areas held by the Taliban – have faced retribution, and are deciding to flee their homes.
Pakistan once had a thriving Jewish population centered in Karachi, where a prominent synagogue once stood, but most of these Jews immigrated to India, Israel, and Britain by the late 1960s. Still, a small Jewish community reportedly still exists in Karachi. And some researchers say that Pakistan’s Pashtuns – also known as Pathans – trace their origins to one of the Lost Tribes of Israel. Pashtuns, who live in Pakistan’s border areas with Afghanistan, follow practices (such as eighth-day circumcision) that are similar to those in Judaism. Scholars have written about this connection for more than 50 years, and Pashtuns I met in Pakistan when I lived there talked openly about the connection, even noting that their “Jewish noses” were an obvious sign of their historic lineage.
Pakistan was once a gateway to all the world’s major religions, including Buddhism, which spread there more than 2,000 years ago. Today, old Buddhist temples are being restored in Pakistan. And museums around the world, including the Metropolitan in New York, have eye-catching objects that testify to the time when Pakistan was a land that openly welcomed people of all faiths.