Shunned by Pakistan’s Muslims, Ahmadis find refuge in a city of their own


An Ahmadi graveyard in Rabwah, Pakistan. PHOTO/Mohsin Raza/The New York Times

The guard inched open the metal gate of the giant mosque compound, cast a wary glance at the empty street and with a cagey wave of his hand said, “Come in.”

It was a Tuesday afternoon in Rabwah, the time for the midday prayer performed daily by Muslims, but the sprawling halls of Masjid-e-Aqsa, the largest mosque of the Ahmadi sect in Pakistan, stood empty. Paint peeled off the walls. A giant clock near the dusty pulpit read 8:44, no longer keeping time.

Though Ahmadi beliefs are deeply rooted in Islam, orthodox Muslims consider them heretical. The Pakistan Constitution declared them non-Muslims after anti-Ahmadi riots in 1974, and a 1984 ordinance forbade their “posing as Muslims” — performing the Muslim call to prayer, publicly using Islamic greetings, disseminating religious literature or even calling their places of worship mosques.

The legal changes have left the sect particularly vulnerable, and attacks on Ahmadi businesses, places of worship and graveyards are common. Since twin attacks on Ahmadi mosques in Lahore in 2010 left 93 people dead, Rabwah’s Masjid-e-Aqsa, where 20,000 people would gather at a time, has been abandoned for smaller neighborhood mosques.

“The congregations were a time to meet friends, catch up and laugh,” Amir Mehmood, who works in the community’s press office, said as he walked through the mosque’s echoing halls. “Now this emptiness, it makes my heart weep.”

Mr. Mehmood’s mood matched that of the city, where a tenuous sense of security holds even as the specter of violence hovers just outside the city walls. Rabwah is filled with those who have suffered decades of violence. Some are here to find sanctuary. Others are waiting to flee abroad.

The sect moved its headquarters to Pakistan from India in 1948, purchased a barren stretch of desert land from the government and resolved to populate it. Thus was Rabwah born.

Today the city contains about 70,000 Ahmadis. The roads are paved and lined with greenery. An Olympic-size swimming pool, state-of-the-art library, free eye and blood banks and a world-class cardiology hospital have been set up. Much of the community is affluent, and the literacy rate is over 85 percent. The city is small enough that people, even those who can afford cars, cycle everywhere.

Rabwah — where portraits of the Ahmadi sect’s turbaned founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, are ubiquitous — has a veneer of calm, even affluence, that is at odds with the growing hatred against the sect elsewhere in the country. (In November, anti-Ahmadi demonstrators paralyzed the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, for weeks and an attempt by the government to clear out the protest site ended in deadly clashes that spilled over to other parts of the country.)

In a bustling bazaar on the busy Aqsa Road, women in thick button-down loose robe abayas distinctive to the Ahmadis could be seen smelling oranges at fruit stalls, haggling with jewelry store owners and hailing yellow taxis. In neighboring towns like Faisalabad and Chiniot, shop signs warn Ahmadis not to enter: “First enter Islam, then enter this shop!” But here in the bazaar, almost every second store had the word Ahmadi in its name: Ahmadi Tailors. Ahmadi General Store. Ahmadi Hardware.

After nightfall, children played cricket in well-kept parks while their fathers gathered around coal heaters. Others could be seen walking back from school, bowed under the weight of colorful knapsacks. Rabwah’s few, overcrowded schools must run on two shifts — morning and evening — to make sure everyone gets an education.

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