Facing persecution at home, Ahmadiyya Muslims find refuge in Manila
MANILA, Philippines– For decades, followers of the Ahmadiyya faith, a minority sect of Islam, have fallen victim to laws that target them as non-believers in Pakistan. Some of them have sought asylum in the Philippines.
Hassan Ali is a recognized refugee in Metro Manila. He fled his home country of Pakistan in 2014 in fear of persecution for simply being an Ahmadiyya Muslim.
“My pain was psychological,” Ali said. “Discrimination was everywhere and the situations increasingly became so difficult for me to freely practice my religion.”
The Ahmadiyya claims to be a young sect of Islam, formed in 1889 around Mizra Ghulam Ahmed who claimed to be the messiah or the ‘second advent of Jesus’.
In Muslim-majority countries like the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, the practice of Ahmadiyya beliefs is looked down as blasphemous because they believe that according to the tenets of Islam the Prophet Muhammad was the last messenger of God.
In 1974, Pakistan constitutionally classified Ahmadis as non-Muslims when the term ‘Muslim’ was broadly defined. Ten years later, they were criminalized by the writ of the Pakistani state. Amended into the National Penal Code of Pakistan is the complete denial of self-identification for Ahmadi Muslims that deprives them of the right to vote.
“The language of the law is so vague and broad [in Pakistan], it has opened the gates for unnecessary litigation of the community,” Talha Ali, president and missionary-in-charge of the Ahmadiyya community in the Philippines said.
In the Philippines
The Ahmadiyya community in the Philippines has existed since the early 2000s but grew in numbers only recently. It has over 8 branches in the country.
“Our national program has worked on 3 fronts: education, interfaith dialogue and humanitarian work,” Talha Ali said, adding that each of these components are part and parcel of their religious teachings.
The oldest record of the Ahmadiyya in the Philippines dates back to the 1960s, according to Ali, citing it as the first wave of Ahmadiyya converts.
“The Ahmadiyya community established a permanent presence in the Philippines in the '90s, paving the way for the third and final wave of converts,” Talha Ali said.
Ahmadi Muslims openly practice their faith in Metro Manila, hosting educational classes and organizing blood drives as part of their national programs.
But extremist attacks in forms of mob violence still followed them to the Philippines. Two years ago, a plain-clothed band of men disrupted an interfaith peace symposium in a fastfood chain, and assaulted Ahmadi attendees.
“These people launched tirades of false accusations on me and other refugee members on social media for being non-Muslims,” Ali said.
Although Ahmadi Muslims are met with periodical threats from other local Muslim groups, security concerns for the refugees and Ahmadi converts soared as a result of the incident.
According to refugee accounts, the Philippines was not their final destination but immigration apprehensions at the airport had them detained.
Hizqeel Ahmad, a 21-year-old from Pakistan, arrived in the Philippines with a 17-member group with young children in 2015. His refugee status was determined by the Department of Justice (DoJ) a year later.
The Philippines has ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol, binding the state to protect refugee and asylum seeker rights.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is the facilitating body that forwards asylum applications to the DoJ’s subsidiary - the Refugee and Stateless Persons Protections Unit (RSPPU).
A major obstacle to stability for refugees in Manila is finding a job that pays well. The Philippines' work policy for refugees is nearly synonymous with mandates for foreign national visa holders.
“I’ve been in a financial crisis for 4 years now,” Waseem Akhtar, another Ahmadi refugee said, lamenting the little money he makes out of a small business.
Months later, Akhtar’s status was approved in 2016. He then sponsored a flight for his wife and children to Manila.
Waseem said there is “no family reunion policy for refugees in the Philippines”. His family underwent the process from scratch.
“We need a roadmap for integrating refugees into the society as citizens so that eventually, they’ll do more to contribute as a positive member of the Filipino society,” Talha Ali said.
In 2017, the Department of Labor and Employment (DoLE) scrapped the alien employment permit (AEP) originally authorized as a prerequisite for securing a job.
While foreign nationals can apply under The Revised Naturalization Act, Hassan Ali cites concerns about the process taking no less than 10 years and requires reeducation of the new society.
“Paying taxes, learning the language and proving your loyalty to the Philippines is not easy when you’re born and raised in another nation,” Hassan Ali said.
Through programs organized by the national Ahmadiyya community, the refugees continue to familiarize themselves with the local culture in hopes of becoming a Filipino citizen one day
“All we’re asking for is a smoother integration at least and in order for that to happen, stable income needs to be on the top of the government agenda.” – Rappler.com
Fatima Qureshi is a Rappler intern and a full-time student pursuing a Master's in Journalism degree at the University of Hong Kong.