Christian mother-of-five Asia Bibi, who is on death row for blasphemy, has for some critics of Pakistan’s rights record become emblematic of the country’s unjust treatment of non-Muslims.

An official from Pakistan’s Punjab province has acknowledged that the authorities have failed to protect Christians and other non-Muslims from Islamic extremists.

“The intolerance, anger on religious matters and culture of lynching disturbs us,” Punjab government spokesman Malik Muhammad Ahmad Khan told journalists and activists at a 12 May discussion in the provincial capital, Lahore, entitled “Securing Punjab’s Diversity”.

“We have failed in protecting minorities from forced conversion,” he continued. “Everybody knows it, why should we hide it?” The National Commission of Justice and Peace and the Pakistan Hindu Council say that 700 of the 1,000 Christian and Hindu women forcibly converted to Islam and forcibly married each year in Pakistan are Punjabi Christians.

Rights group say many of these are under 18 and are married off to Muslims or forced into bonded labour, UCAN news reported.

Mr Khan, who is also a special assistant to Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh, referred to the killing by hardliners in April of four people from the Ahmadiyya sect, whose members Pakistan has declared non-Muslims. “The religious cleansing must stop,” he said.

Fr. Abid Habib, the former regional coordinator of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Catholic religious major superiors, told UCA News it had become impossible for local Hindus to recover children kidnapped by Muslims. “The police and the courts always take the side of the Muslim party,” he said.

Catholic Professor Anjum James Paul, Chairman of Pakistan Minorities Teachers’ Association, said school textbooks were responsible for increasing hatred for religions other than Islam.

A panelist at the event, Nadeem Umar Tarar of the National College of Arts in Lahore, said: “Our cultural identities have been suppressed by a religious and extremist mindset. There is no space for intellectual discussion.”

Punjab, which has a population of more than 101 million people, is home to around 1.7 million Christians, 600,000 Ahmadis and 7,000 Hindus.