ASIA/PAKISTAN – Forced conversions: a bill is urgently needed to protect religious freedom
Mar 24, 2022
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Karachi (Agenzia Fides) – Forced conversions to Islam threaten religious freedom and religious pluralism in Pakistan, therefore it is urgent to introduce legal and administrative guarantees to address crimes involving forced conversions, child marriage and abuse of women in Pakistan. These are the requests made in the recent meeting entitled “Break the Bias” held in recent days in Karachi, organized by the NGO “Voice for Justice” (VFJ) committed to the protection of human rights, equality of rights and religious freedom.
Nuzhat Shirin, chairman of Sindh’s Commission on the Status of Women, said: “It is encouraging that the Islamabad High Court has declared marriage for children under 18 illegal. The high presence of early marriages in Pakistan is attributed to poverty, social norms, traditions and customs and religious misperceptions.
Furthermore, the Federal Court of the Sharia also issued a ruling according to which setting a legal minimum age for marriage is not an act against Islam, which paves the way for the abolition of marriages for minors under 18 also in Pakistan”.
Civil society in the nation calls on the government to review the draft law against forced conversions and submit it to the National Legislative Assembly. Ghazala Shafique, a Christian woman renowned for her commitment to defending women’s rights, says: “The issue of forced conversions to Islam must be presented as a human rights issue, not just a religious issue”.
Naghma Shaikh, also a women’s rights activist, notes: “The lack of enforcement of existing law remains a serious obstacle. It is regrettable that the perpetrators of such acts frequently enjoy impunity for the crimes committed”. According to Seemi Emmanuel, “the inability of the State to implement and enforce existing laws on kidnappings, early marriages and forced marriages is evident, especially when the victims belong to religious minority communities”. Humayun Waqas, intellectual promoter of human rights , tells Fides: “Citizens are guaranteed the right to religious freedom in Article 20 of the Constitution of Pakistan; it is illegal and immoral to force them to change their faith by resorting to threats, coercion or manipulation”. According to Joseph Jansen, President of VFJ, “the absence of an adequate institutional response encourages the phenomenon of forced conversions, of forced marriages, especially to the detriment of women of religious minorities”. VFJ invites the government to take measures for the protection, promotion, and respect for the rights of minorities; to present a bill in federal and provincial assemblies to ensure that the minimum age for marriage is set at 18; to set up a committee of experts to review the draft law introducing guarantees against forced religious conversions. Furthermore, notes the NGO, it is necessary to promote a campaign that educates public opinion to support the bill against forced conversions and to work so that the judgments of the courts on the phenomena of forced conversion and forced marriage are independent, impartial and timely, ensuring the guilty to justice. These measures, says VFJ, are part of the framework of the defense and promotion of women’s rights in Pakistan.