The Pakistani government led by Prime Minister Imran Khan has decided to restore and reopen 400 Hindu temples, a move that has been greeted positively by Hans Noot, the director of the Gerard Noodt Foundation for Freedom of Religion or Belief.

The reopening of Hindu temples in a conservative country where 97% of the population is Muslim and highly suspicious of Hindus due to their ties to Pakistan’s arch-enemy India is being received as a particularly significant and positive development

Two temples will be restored every year, the first of which will be in Peshawar, on the border with Afghanistan, and Sialkot in eastern Pakistan.

The move comes after the government conceded to longstanding demands by the country’s tiny Hindu population that their places of worship should be restored and handed back to the community.

All 400 temples on the list had been abandoned during the post-colonial partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 and subsequently turned into restaurants, stores, and grocery shops. Some were also converted into madrassas where Muslims send their children to study the Koran.

Although millions of Hindus were forced to migrate to India during the two rivals population exchange in the immediate aftermath of independence from British Crown Rule, a few small communities remained. Those that remained in Pakistan were unable to visit temples because their sites were seized by local Muslim authorities.

The Pakistani government faces significant logistics and financial challenges big challenge as the 1,000-year-old Shivalaya Teja Singh temple in Sialkot, a city in Pakistan’s portion of the Punjab, needs extensive work to return it to its former glory. Hindus worshippers stopped visiting the temple after a mob attacked the structure following the demolition of the Babri Mosque in 1992.

The Gorakhnath Temple in Peshawar, which is a cultural heritage site, also needs major refurbishment in a city that is known for Islamic fundamentalism and a base for Pakistan’s branch of the Taliban. The restoration will most likely experience significant pushback from Peshawar’s local authorities, most of whom view the presence of non-Muslim religious believers as a threat to their fundamentalist brand of Islam.

The government’s plan to breathe new life into Pakistan’s Hindu community comes after a survey conducted by the All-Pakistan Hindu Rights Movement

showed that out a total of 428 functioning Hindu temples that existed in the 1940s, only 20 continue to function as a Hindu place of worship

Imran Khan’s reforming administration has taken what is widely seen as conciliatory steps towards Pakistan’s minorities since it came to power last year, has reached out to both the Hindu and Sikh community.

Commenting on the Pakistani government’s initiatives, Hans Noot told New Europe that “Much of the tension in the region is the result of, particularly religious differences. Historically, both Pakistan and India react to religious sentiments,” who added, “Rebuilding Hindu temples is not only an olive branch towards the Hindu community, which has long been stigmatised but towards India as well.”

“Moving from religious hostility to religious acceptance, and someday hopefully moving on to more tolerance and appreciation between religious communities is a much stronger strategy to accomplish peace in the region,” said Noot.

 This content is part of the ‘Religious Freedom’ section supported by the Faith and Freedom Summit Coalition.