Forced conversions in Pakistan: Minority community members voice their concerns
A growing pattern of religious intolerance is being seen in Pakistan.
Recently, eminent speakers from Pakistan’s minority community came together in a national conference organized by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) and the People’s Commission for Minority Rights (PCMR) to discuss the “issue of forced conversions, and how they could be prevented”.
The conference began with a speech by Peter Jacob, the Executive Director of CSJ and Chairperson of PCMR, who stated numerical facts of forced conversions cases and said:
From 2013 to 2020, there have been at least 162 cases of conversion, mainly of Hindu and Christian minor girls from both Sindh and Punjab. This only shows that women from the minority community are incredibly vulnerable to such gender crimes. However, the crime of forced conversion is not limited to just Hindus and Christians; all religious minority communities are affected.
Jacob continued to state:
At least 46 percent of the girls who have been allegedly converted to Islam were below the age of 18, while the age of 37 percent was not mentioned in the reports. Only 16 percent of women were more than 18 years old. The numbers increased in the year 2019. Among the districts, Bahawalpur district topped the list for its reported conversion cases (around 21), followed by Karachi and Lahore.
Here is a summary of the comments made by other keynote speakers present at the conference:
Veteran human rights lawyer and the former Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on human rights defenders, Hina Jilani, made the conference’s keynote address. She asserted:
A growing pattern of religious intolerance is being seen in Pakistan. The space for various freedoms in the country is shrinking fast, damaging the very fabric of society while undermining democracy as well.
Jilani continued to state:
This is putting the lives of already marginalized communities of religious minorities in grave danger. Prioritizing religious freedom is not only a human rights obligation but it also assesses the space of liberty, freedom, and justice for those who are excluded, and the government of Pakistan must roll back this violence and oppression. The government must wake up to its responsibility in protecting the rights of minorities.
Justice (R) Mehta Kailash Kohli
The former chief justice of the Balochistan High Court, Justice Kohli, spoke about several aspects of the situation at the ceremony. He said:
The victims and their families have little legal aid and support when it comes to forced conversions. When it comes to the implementation of the law, the minority community is discriminated against. While Article 25 says there should be no discrimination, Article 4 commands the entire constitution to be protected by law. The law must be applied to every citizen, including the minorities – this is not being done. Former Chief Justice of Pakistan Tasadduq Hussain Jillani, in his suo moto in 2004, gave several directives, but none were implemented.
Kohli continued to express:
Unfortunately, the Sindh assembly approved Bill was rolled back by the government despite numerous forced conversions in Sindh. That bill was a landmark judgment I saw in 47 years.
Why are laws regarding minorities’ issues being vetted by the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII). These are not matters of an Islamic council. There is not even one minority member on their board, so they have no legal right to make decisions for us. Such matters should be discussed in parliament only. The constitution must be implemented, including Article 36 and Article 33. All shamshan ghaths, and temples that had been encroached upon after 1947, must be restored for the minority community. All pending and future cases must be investigated under Section 498-B and other provisions of the Pakistan Penal Code.
At the conference, Advocate Bhagwan Das from the Sindh High Court also spoke about how forced conversion cases were botched from the very beginning since the groundwork was not reliable. He stated:
When a Hindu girl has been forcibly converted into a Muslim, she undergoes immense pressure. When the girl comes to court, she is surrounded by crowds; her relatives aren’t allowed inside. Even the women police who surround the girl pressure her by saying that she cannot change if she is a Muslim. Otherwise, it would become worse for her.
Das continued to say:
In other situations, the girls feel they have too much ‘responsibility’ or climb up the social ladder. As a result, many Hindu communities do not say anything because they have other daughters who need to be protected, so they withdraw their girls from school.
Other Speakers at the Conference
Pushpa Kumari, Member of the Sindh Human Rights Commission, stated:
The religious minorities are often marginalized and segregated due to their low socio-economic status, poor health conditions, and low literacy.
Highlighting the psychological impact of forced conversions, Dr. Heera Lal Lohano, a Consultant on Emotional and Behavioral Health, elaborated:
The faith conversion of minor girls poses severe implications to the psychological wellbeing of the victims, families, and society at large. Forced Conversions could result in adverse mental health outcomes, including anxiety, depression, negative self-esteem, distress, hopelessness, loneliness, distress, and behavioral and other emotional difficulties.
Bishop Emeritus of Lahore Alexander John Malik said:
The abduction is only one part of the forced conversion. It is the first part, the conversion is the second part of legitimizing the kidnapping, then comes marriage and the fourth part is the trafficking of women. If people are so keen to convert non-Muslims, why don’t the men adopt them as daughters or sisters? Why not convert men too? How can an underage girl decide for conversion?
Lawyer Saquib Jillani stated:
I was part of a two-member committee that had made a draft to ensure that all bodies must have a statute. The cabinet’s decision to make a toothless minorities’ commission is a violation of CJP Jilani’s directives. Dr. Shoaib Suddle has filed a case in the Supreme Court in this regard.
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