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Pakistan Religious Affairs Ministry oppose a restriction on converting religion before the age of 18

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Image of abduction, rape and forced Marriage victim Fouzi Bibi (light turquoise dress) at divorce celebration party after BACA set her free from her rapist husband in 2017- the first escape from forced marriage by a Pak-Christian woman (click here).

By Hannah Chowdhry


A decision by Pakistan’s Ministry of Religious Affairs on Wednesday (14th July 2021) opposing a restriction on converting religion before the age of 18 years, is supported by British Asian Christian Association.

Noorul Haq Qadri the Minister for Religious Affairs, during a meeting of the Senate parliamentary committee on minorities' rights, said:

“…if someone aged 14 years wished to convert to some other religion, they could "not be stopped.

"We do not support a restriction on religious conversion before 18 years of age.

"There are several incidents where someone expresses the wish to convert their religion out of their own choice before the age of 18.

“There are several examples in Islam of religious conversion before 18,

“If someone wished to change their religion before reaching the age of 18, it is their choice.”

He did add a caveat about forced Marriages however, stating:

“… a nikkah or marriage before 18 was another discussion.”

The minister said that the matter related to setting the minimum age limit for marriage had been sent to the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII).

Mr Qadri also said that if someone was "forcefully converting [others] in Sindh", then it would be investigated.

The whole discussion began in the face of a growing number of reports of forced conversions of Hindu and Christian girls under the age of 18. In 2014 Muslim NGO Movement of Solidarity and peace reported that an estimated 700 Christian girls and 300 Hindu girls are abducted, raped and forced into Islamic Marriage every year.

These figures show no signs of dissipating and British Asian Christian Association, like other NGO’s is concerned that that no solid attempt is being made by Pakistani authorities to tackle this social malaise that has perplexed minorities for decades.

However, we do not feel that a law restricting the age of conversion to 18 provides any useful assistance. Firstly, a Muslim can marry someone from another faith even if they do not convert this is permissible in the Quran, though not advised:

“Today, all the good things of life have been made lawful for you. The food of the people of the Book is lawful to you just as your food is lawful to them. Virtuous, believing women are lawful to you as well as virtuous women from the People of the Book; provided that you give them their bridal gifts and marry them-- not taking them as lovers or secret mistresses. As for anyone who rejects faith in God, all of their works will come to nothing, and in the Hereafter they will be with the doomed.”

Ayah al-Ma`idah (The Table, The Table Spread) 5:5

So these forced marriages and abductions would not terminate based on a conversion or not, because the perpetrators do not need the conversion for the marriage to be deemed sacrosanct. It is other factors that trap these women, mainly the power and influence of the abductors and the prejudice many Muslims in Pakistan feel towards Christians.

The best way to this right this matter is by addressing the forced marriage issue and ensuring that a minimum age of 18 years for marriage as per the Women’s Protection Bill is enforced.

Moreover, there is a need to remove the prejudice from within the justice system starting with police who refuse to file crime reports and are lackadaisical when minority parents inform them of such rapes and abductions. Worse still are the courts where judges who initially side with the minority families eventually order for sobbing women/girls to be returned to their abductors.

A case in point would be Rinkle Kumari who is quoted by the Hindu Post as having screamed in court:

“… that she wanted to go to her mother and that she was converted forcibly. She pleaded to court ‘you can kill me here but don’t send me with them.’ But her cries fell on deaf ears.”

The article goes on to describe how the girls plea was ignored due to a mass mob outside the courts and instead of being returned to her parents, she was sent to Dar ul Aman a women’s shelter to meditate on her position and to make a final decision.
These centres are notably brutal.

In 2008 the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) reported on the conditions of the Darul Aman shelters, indicating that they "retained their notoriety for being similar to detention centres with curfews, ill treatment and absence of a gender-sensitive environment"

Worse still minority families whose girls inevitably end up in these centres instead of being returned to them.

These families have long complained that though neither they nor the ‘forced husbands’ or their families permitted access to girls under the centre’s care, that by paying a bribe abductors are able to enter the premises and threaten them.

This may be why accepting her fate in a later court hearing three weeks later Rinkle Kumari testified that she had voluntarily entered the marriage no doubt full of tears as she spoke.

You can read her Rinkle Kumari’s full story (here) and (here)

The man involved in that particular incident was the Pir (Sufi spiritual leader) of Bharchundi Dargah, Mian Abdul Haq (Mian Mithoo). He was given a special mention by Mr Qadri who said that Mian Mithu, the Pir of Bharchundi Sharif who is blamed for alleged forced conversions of Hindu girls in rural Sindh, should be called by the committee and informed that what he was doing was "damaging Islam and Pakistan".

Considering the nature of the abduction of Rinkle Kumari and the evidenced failings of the Supreme Court. A part of me considers this comment insipid if not insulting. Instead of taking the bull by the horns and requesting a further police investigation into Rinkle Kumari’s abduction he has suggested that a slap on the wrist is all that’s required for Mian Mithoo’s actions. This must have somewhat chafed Hindu Senator Danesh Kumar, as he later brought up another matter.

Senator Kumar told the committee that a new "tradition" of converting people had started in Balochistan. He said:

"There is a religious leader in Dalbandin who is telling sweepers that they will not have to do cleaning work if they convert to Islam,"

Sadly instead of pressing home the need for better protection of minority females Senator Kumar introduced a non-forced conversion practice to the debate that is quite simply crass. Hindu’s being converted by the offer of new jobs is suggestive of a lack of faith especially when you consider the number of Christians that accept slavery and mistreatment but cling to their faith as a beacon of hope.

The changing of one’s faith for fiscal gain is through inducement and not through coercing. Though it seems deplorable to other people of the same faith this is not something we can legislate for. If anything the rights of the conversion supersede any rights for an existing faith to be forced onto the person converting. Moreover, perhaps Senator Kumar should be working with his community to develop faith building programs within his community. When I think of the Christians who choose abject poverty, slavery and persecution rather than lose their faith, it brings into question what exactly Senator Kumar is trying tp protect.

On 11th February 2021, The Parliamentary Committee to Protect Minorities from Forced Conversions had recommended that only a mature person may be allowed to change their religion and that too after appearing before an additional sessions judge of the area.

The special committee was chaired by Senator Anwarul Haq Kakar in Parliament House. It recommended the naming of a drft as ‘Stymie Forced Religious Conversion Bill.’

The draft suggested that the application form would include particulars of the person willing to convert to another religion such as their name, age, gender, Computerized National Identity Card (CNIC), details of parents, siblings, children and spouse (if any), current religion and the reason for conversion.

The committee had suggested that the additional sessions judge would set a date for an interview within seven days of receipt of the application for conversion.

“On the date provided, the person shall present himself/herself before the additional sessions judge who shall ensure that the conversion is not under any duress and not due to any deceit or fraudulent misrepresentation.”

The additional sessions judge may, upon the request of the person, arrange his/her meeting with religious scholars of the religion the person wishes to convert to.

Senator Sikandar Mandhro briefed the committee and said a clause had been added under which the additional sessions judge may grant 90 days to the person to undertake a comparative study of the religions and return to the office of the judge. “This will discourage emotion-based decisions or conversions under duress,” Senator Mandhro told the committee.

British Asian Christian Association is all to aware how laws like these become anti-conversion laws and has seen similar law in India cause persecution to Christian Evangelists. Moreover, the Islam taught in Pakistan is very conservative and obtaining details of a converts family could cause harm to the family members or the convert themselves and is a highly dangerous practice.  One examle is this article that refers to the arrest of Pastor two pastors under India's anticonversion laws despite the Hindu converts stating they would rather die than convert back to Hinduism (click here).

There are a large number of Muslim and Christian converts to Christianity in Pakistan, most of whom stay under the radar to avoid conflict with their families and friends.In fact a former Pakistan High Commissioner to the UK, Wajid Shamsul Haq at a multi-faith peace event BACA organised after the death of Shahbaz Bhatti, confirmed that more Pakistani Muslims convert to Christianity than vice versa. He suggested the rate was in the region of 2:1, though that was back in 2010. 

British Asian Christian Association helped some of them with food parcels during the COVID-19 pandemic and a previous flood. Read more (here) and (here)

British Asian Christian Association were also involved with more spiritual erudition with others during our more recent evangelistiv visits to Pkaistan by our missionary Brother Leighton.  Read more (here) and (here)

So you see, such a ruling would have been very dangerous for the extremely important salvation work undertaken by many Missionaries in Pakistan.
Now the numbers may not be in their millions despite what this news feature by CBN (click here), but there is a large number nevertheless.

Inevitably the hate towards Converts from Islam to Christianity is extreme and can lead to death. So much so they have a slightly elevated opportunity for asylum to the UK, as can be read about within the Country Guidance set by the UK Home Office which holds a lot of data on the subject (click here).

Taking this all into context British Asian Christian Association reaffirms our support for the current decision made by Pakistan’s Ministry of Religious Affairs in not ratifying the draft bill posed by the The Parliamentary Committee to Protect Minorities from Forced Conversions. However we also reiterate our desire that a more concerted approach to protect minority women form forced marriages ensues. Moreover, that new harsher laws are introduced to penalize any persons involved in forced conversions whether they are linked to marriages or not, with such penalties being applied to the aggressor and equally the Imam involved in the process also.

There is a counter argument that some Christian groups hold which we share with you by way of this article (click here)

I have written a research document titled ‘Why are Christian girls kidnaped, raped into Islamic Marriage in Pakistan?’ which has been submitted for my Extended Project Qualification, intended to increase my UKAS points for university applications.

I will be sharing that in our next newsletter to subscribe please join us (here). Please note that from August we will be changing our web platform as Adobe Business Catalyst is terminating. So if you wish to continue receiving our e-newsletters than please use the link above to stay with us.

Juliet Chowdhry, Trustee for British Asian Christian Association, said:

"Freedom of religion is enshrined in international law and must be preserved.

"We commend the Religious Affairs Ministry for their excellent decision.

"It would be an even better decision if the ministry decided to include text similar to Article 9 of the Humans Right Act into their own laws and statutes.

"I pray for that day."

Article 9: Freedom of thought, conscience and religion [Human Rights Act 1998]

1. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching practice and observance.
2. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

British Asian Christian Association has been raising awareness of the plight of Asian Christians, providing aid to victims of persecution, poverty and disaster and creating opportunities for education and business for beleaguered South Asian Christians for almost 12 years.  Please help us continue our work by donating (here).

 

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