Lahore: In majority Muslim Pakistan, religious minorities say democracy is killing them.
Intolerance has been on the rise for the past five years under Pakistan's democratically elected government because of the growing violence of Islamic radicals, who are then courted by political parties, say many in the country's communities of Shiite Muslims, Christians, Hindus and other minorities.
On Saturday, the country will elect a new parliament, marking the first time one elected government is replaced by another in the history of Pakistan, which over its 66-year existence has repeatedly seen military rule.
But minorities are not celebrating. Some of the fiercest Islamic extremists are candidates in the vote, and minorities say even the mainstream political parties pander to radicals to get votes, often campaigning side-by-side with well-known militants.
More than a dozen representatives of Pakistan's minorities interviewed by The Associated Press expressed fears the vote will only hand more influence to extremists.
Since the 2008 elections, under the outgoing government led by the left-leaning Pakistan People's Party, sectarian attacks have been relentless and minorities have found themselves increasingly targeted by radical Islamic militants. Minorities have little faith the new election will change that.
"We are always opposed to martial law (but) during all the military regimes, the law and order was better and there was good security for minorities," said Amar Lal, a lawyer and human rights activist for Pakistan's Hindu community.
About 96 percent of Pakistan's population of 180 million is Muslim. Most are Sunni, but according to the CIA Factbook about 10 to 15 percent are members of the Shiite sect.
The remaining 4 percent are adherents to other religions such as Christians, Hindus and Ahmedis - a sect reviled by mainstream Muslims as heretics because they believe a prophet came after Muhammad, defying a basic tenet of Islam that Muhammad was the last prophet. Sunni radicals view Shiite Muslims as apostates.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom in a report last month berated the Pakistani government for its poor record of protecting both its minorities and its majority Sunni Muslims and recommended that Pakistan be put on a list of worst offenders, which could jeopardize billions of dollars in US assistance.
"The government of Pakistan continues to engage in and tolerate systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of freedom of religion or belief," the report said.
"Sectarian and religiously motivated violence is chronic, especially against Shiite Muslims, and the government has failed to protect members of religious minority communities, as well as the majority faith."
Lal said that in the past three years, 11,000 Hindus living in Pakistan's southwestern Baluchistan province have migrated to India because they were worried about security and frustrated by kidnappings and forced conversions of young Hindu girls to Islam. Pakistan's Hindu minority complains that scores of Hindu girls have been kidnapped, forced to marry their abductor and convert to Islam.
"In Pakistan's southern Sindh province, from every Hindu house, one member of the family has left either for Karachi or for a foreign land," said Lal, who was once a special adviser to Benazir Bhutto, the leader of the Pakistan People's Party until her assassination in December 2007.