Although the Pakistani constitution enshrines freedom of religion and the protection of minorities, it is also heavily influenced by Shariah law; Islam is declared the state religion and apostasy is a crime punishable by death.
Whilst Muslims are at liberty to seek new converts, other faith groups are condemned. Non-Muslims are free to convert to Islam, yet Muslims face death, torture, imprisonment and social exclusion if they abandon the Islamic faith.
In largely Muslim Pakistan, apostasy brings terrible disgrace to a family. It is, therefore, not uncommon for family members to try to kill the convert rather than take legal action.
Forced conversion to Islam has become a major concern to CLAAS. Human rights groups in Pakistan have counted almost 600 cases, yet the media rarely reports on the issue, police sideline cases, and the perpetrators are often influential Muslims who can all too easily use their position to escape punishment.
In one of the most recent cases to come to the attention of CLAAS, Christian factory worker Danish found his life in danger in May this year when he refused to bow to the pressure of his mainly Taliban colleagues to convert to Islam. They accused him of blasphemy and determined to burn him alive and stone his family. Danish’s life was saved by the factory director who called in the police and kept him in safety until tensions subsided.
Danish is one of many Christians to have been supported by CLAAS with free legal aid and a safe place to stay after escaping from a forced conversion.
Forced conversions of women
Although all religious minorities in Pakistan face the threat of forced conversion, human rights groups have witnessed a rise in the number of reports of non-Muslim women in particular being forced to convert to Islam. Non-Muslim women are regarded as infidels and their conversion to Islam is considered a noble deed among more hardline Islamic groups.
The state and law enforcement agencies, particularly the police, have failed to ensure the protection of women members of minority religions. Whist the Pakistani government denies the victimisation of non-Muslim women, CLAAS continues to receive regular reports of humiliation, harassment, sexual abuse, forced marriage and forced conversion to Islam.
Forced conversion of non-Muslim women to Islam occurs at the hands of various Islamic groups. In the last few years, the numbers of Christian and Hindu women being forced to convert to Islam suggests they are the main target of these groups.
Forced conversion is a threat to Christian women and girls working especially in Muslim households or small factories, where some have reportedly been abducted, raped, forced to convert to Islam and then forced to marry to Muslims. Victims are not allowed to convert back to their original religion. Nor are they allowed to maintain contact with their non-Muslim relatives, not even their parents. They are instead kept under strict custody.
In 2005, Rina, Oosha and Reema were granted one hour to meet their parents but in the end the abductors allowed only 15 minutes and after that, the parents never heard any news of their daughters.
In 1998, three minor Christian girls, Nadia, 15, Naima, 13, and Nabila, 11, of Rawalpindi near Islamabad, were kidnapped and forcibly converted to Islam. The court sided with the Muslim abductors and ruled that “since the girls have become Muslim therefore their Christian parents cannot have their custody”. They were then sent to the Dar-ul-Aman (a house for destitute women) where they were later married to Muslim men.
CLAAS is currently following up the case of two Christian girls, Saba, 13 and Anila, 10, who were kidnapped on 26th June 2008 and forcibly converted to Islam. Saba was also forced to wed a Muslim boy. The girls should have been returned to their parents but instead their parents are now facing a custody battle for their own children.
The police have decided not to investigate the case whilst the courts have refused to hand the girls over to their parents on the grounds that conversion to Islam forbids Christian parents to maintain custody of their converted children.
The Pakistani government refuses to intervene in the case, despite its clear violation of Pakistan’s own laws as well as international conventions on women and children.
Forced conversion of minors brings so much suffering to parents and children alike and in some cases, parents never win back custody of their own children. CLAAS is extremely concerned that such forced conversions are on the increase among women and children in Pakistan, and is working to put a stop to them.
There is a real need to speak out on the atrocities being committed regularly against religious minority women and their families, who usually have no access to legal support. CLAAS is committed to empowering women and raising awareness at the national and international level. Pressure must be put on the Pakistani government to ensure that they bring their laws into line with the international treaties they have signed, guaranteeing the rights and human dignity of women and children.