ASIA/PAKISTAN - Forced religious conversion: may the government accept the appeal submitted to the UN

Thursday, 26 January 2023 conversion   religious minorities   religious freedom  

Islamabad (Agenzia Fides) - Christian communities, Hindus, and civil society organizations in Pakistan have welcomed the recent statement submitted to the UN Human Rights Council on the phenomenon of abduction, forced religious conversion and forced marriage of girls belonging to religious minorities, especially Christians and Hindus. In an appeal presented in Geneva on January 16, a group of independent experts and special rapporteurs, including the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women and the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief, "expressed their concern over the increasing cases of forced religious conversion of underage girls and young women belonging to religious minorities" in Pakistan, calling for "immediate measures to address these cases and justice for the victims."
The group noted the increase in cases of abductions of girls forced to marry and convert to Islam in the country and -reporting this before the Human Rights Council - cited reports of the involvement of religious authorities as well as the complicity of the security forces and the judiciary. Pakistani courts, in fact, often approve such practices by accepting "fraudulent evidence" regarding the age of victims and their alleged willingness to marry and convert to Islam. Courts, the appeal notes, also sometimes "use improper interpretations of religious law to justify victims staying with their abusers", while police refuse to register reports of abductions, dismissing them as "love marriages".
"Kidnappers force their victims to sign documents falsely indicating their legal age for marriage, as well as marriage and religious conversion according to their free will. These documents are cited by the police as proof that no crime was committed", while these are falsified or extorted documents with physical and psychological violence. "It is imperative that all victims, regardless of their religious affiliation, have access to justice and equal protection under the law", states the text submitted to the UN, calling on Pakistani authorities to "enforce the legislation prohibiting forced conversions, forced and early marriages, abduction and human trafficking, and to abide by Pakistan's international human rights commitments to defend the rights of women and children".
Aftab Alexander Mughal, Catholic intellectual and former executive secretary of the National "Justice and Peace" Commission of the Catholic Bishops of Pakistan, writes to Fides: "In recent years, many Christian and Hindu families have lost their daughters. These daughters were abducted and forced to convert and then forcibly married off to their elderly captors. Most of these girls come from poor families, and the powerful kidnappers enjoy the support of conservative religious leaders and law enforcement.
Subsequently, these victims are often confronted with domestic violence. It is a true atrocity which continues with the complicity of the system". Today, the statement to the UN "brings to light the multiple violations of both Pakistan's domestic law and the country's international obligations", it notes.
The point is that "neither the government nor other state institution, nor the judiciary are dealing with the phenomenon for fear of powerful Islamic religious lobbies. For example, for fear of widespread protests, the provincial governor of Sindh has yet to sign a bill banning the conversion of any person under the age of 18, although the bill was passed by the Sindh Provincial Assembly back in 2016. The measure also provides for severe penalties against perpetrators of forced religious conversions".
"Today - Mughal hopes - we are calling for easier access to justice for victims and their families. The current government should take seriously the concerns expressed by the international community and protect the vulnerable segments of society, exploited by violent men, under the cover of religion".
Pakistani media continue to report on such cases. A few days ago in Sindh province, a Hindu woman was abducted and raped after she refused to convert to Islam.
The phenomenon of abductions and forced conversions in Sindh was also mentioned in the documentary film "The Losing Side", which was presented at the Cannes Film Festival 2022 and won an award in the "Best Human Rights Film" category. (PA) (Agenzia Fides, 26/1/2023)