Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Wednesday inaugurated the restoration of an ancient Hindu temple complex in Punjab, a symbolic gesture that may appeal to minority communities and soften the country’s image abroad.
However, the visit and other recent overtures to minority faiths and women, including the passing of pro-women legislation, could also alienate powerful religious hard-liners opposed to social change.
Sharif’s visit to the 900-year-old Katas Raj temples, one of the holiest sites in South Asia for Hindus, comes at a time when relations with India are at a low ebb and show few signs of improving.
“In my personal view, we are all are equal – Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians – and people belonging to other religions; we are all one,” Sharif told Reuters after a Hindu ritual was performed at the temples, located in the village of Katas some 110 km (70 miles) south of the capital Islamabad.
At the ceremony, attended by senior Christian, Sikh and Hindu leaders, Sharif chastised hard-line Muslim scholars who use “strange interpretations” of Islam to preach hate against other religions. “I believe this is not lawful.
No one should try to teach this sort of lesson, nor should anyone heed such lessons,” Sharif said. “Pakistan’s image, economy, foreign investment, security – they are all interlinked,” said an aide to the prime minister.
Political analysts say Sharif’s visit to the Katas Raj temples was part of an effort to reach out to minority groups ahead of a general election scheduled for 2018, and would also appeal to more liberal, urban voters in Pakistan.
Non-Muslims make up only about three percent of the 190 million population, but they are clustered and their votes could swing some seats in the provinces of Punjab and Sindh.
Last month, Sharif re-named a university in honour of Abdus Salam, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who was shunned for decades as he hailed from the small Ahmadiyya community.
Sharif’s attempt to burnish progressive credentials comes at a time when his party is confident it can retain power next year, boosted by the economic benefits from China’s $57 billion investment in road, rail and energy infrastructure.