By Sarmad Ali
22 August, 2014
The landmark judgment delivered on 19th June, 2014 by full bench of the Supreme Court of Pakistan in a suo-motu concerning the bomb attack on Peshawar’s All Saints Church is a milestone in the country’s history. The judgment delivered that there is a need to guarantee equal rights to minorities in Pakistan. The 32 pages judgement said that the constitution of Islamic Republic of Pakistan promises freedom of religion and no citizen has a right over the other to enforce his or her beliefs on others. The judgment is undoubtedly an excellent example for every institution of Pakistan that is under duty to ensure rights and even for the courts to follow it at the time of considering minorities’ issues of any sort.
There is one more crucial issue which has not received due consideration among the intellectuals and human rights organizations which is “forced conversion”. In my last article titled “Domestic Violence should be a crime” opined that domestic violence has to be a crime and act must be enacted sooner rather than later catering domestic violence relating issues. I also believe that there is a need of time to enact laws that prohibit forced conversion through any means. This discussion article discusses the forced conversion issue in Pakistan which is quite high in Southern Punjab and Interior Sindh.
Firstly, it is pertinent to demonstrate what actually forced conversion is? Forced conversion is a religious conversion generally without the consent or acceptance of philosophy against the will of the subject. Theoretically, there is no bar on changing ones religion in Pakistan. However, in Pakistan a right to conversion means conversion to Islam. The environment in Pakistan doesn’t allow conversion to another religion from Islam which is treated as apostasy punishable by death according to common interpretation of Shariah Law. Historically, when Arabs came to Sindh in 711 CE under Mohammad Bin Qasim to conquer it and quickly destroyed the Sindhi forts to conquer the Sindh. The people there then were practising Buddhism and Hinduism for many years. Many Hindus chose to flee Sindh and move to Punjab and Kutch. Those who stayed behind were asked to convert to Islam and those who refused to convert to Islam heavy taxes and penalties were levied against them and their properties were taken from them just to punish them for not being Muslims.
Forced conversion was a major way for the Christianisation of the Roman Empire. In 392 Emperor Theodosius I decreed that Christianity was the only legal religion of the Roman Empire, and forbidding pagan practices by law. Here, I opined that forced conversion was common in ancient and medieval societies but the forced conversion phenomena had been in practice in Sub Continent too. Forced conversion is still prevalent in Pakistan and has yet not gathered the attention of human rights’ groups.
In number of cases minority women (Christian, Hindu, and Sikh) minor girls were abducted and converted to Islam through an Islamic marriage. Their contact with families becomes impossible due to conversion to Islamic. Minor girls and minority women under influence and stress produce a statement under Section 164 CRPC in the court that no forced had been exerted and with her own understanding converted to Islam in the court. It is not out of place to mention that generally lower courts ignored the circumstances, I.e. lack of involvement with the family, crime involved, etc. It is fair to mention that the court should always before considering the statement produced by the minor minority girl to first determine the age and apply the objective test whether a minor can take a step of converting to Islam.
National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) recently published a booklet dealing with “Forced Marriages; Situation in Pakistan”. It contains instances where minority non Muslim girls were abducted by their Muslim neighbour and forcefully converted to Islam without their consent. For instance, in the year 1997 three sister from Rawalpindi were abducted by their Muslim neighbour who converted them to Islam. Three sisters were 15, 13, and 11 years old. Their Christian parents approached the local Magistrate and the abduction of their daughters. The Magistrate opined that the custody of minority girls to their Muslim neighbours instead of their parents on pretext of conversion to Islam. Another example is in 2003, a minor girl who was six years old then was kidnapped by Afridi tribe persons in Khyber Agency. The tribe converted her to Islam and said that she could not be handed back to her parents as due to her conversion to Islam. To date, no serious efforts have been made to recover the six years old girl.
Forced conversion is very common in urban cities of Pakistan for instance; three Hindu sisters were kidnapped in Karachi in the year 2005 from their house. Their parents reported the disappearance of their daughters to the local police. The police lodged the FIR against the Muslim neighbouring boys and charged with abduction but later set them free. The parents found out that their daughters were staying in a religious institute. It was believed by the parents of those daughters that they were converted to Islam and sent to religious seminary. The Supreme Court of Pakistan ordered police to provide security to the girls and shift them to Edhi orphanage from the seminary. The cases relating to forced conversion not stops here there is a long lasting list of cases of forced conversions. I have just quoted some popular cases of forced conversions.
In culmination, it is submitted that forced conversion should be confirmed as a crime by enacting legislation. The provisions relating to forced conversion must be incorporated in Criminal Procedure Code. The Parliament panel committee recommended legislation on forced conversions in 2012. The report held local police officers, tribal chiefs and politicians responsible for not helping minorities recover their kidnapped community. Since then no measure administratively and/or legislation is planned to be discussed on the floor of the Parliament. I further go on to state that the government of Pakistan should serious take up the issues of minorities of Pakistan. The minorities as well as the women in Pakistan are not safe at all. The constitution is a supreme document and promises equality and freedom of faith to each and every citizen of Pakistan. The fundamental human rights only exist on papers but in practice it is a tool which has always been used by the people with deep pockets and radicals for undermining the minorities of Pakistan. Let us make Pakistan a safe place for minorities and women by ensuring equal rights and freedom to faith. The judgment of Supreme Court is an excellent example and it should be conveyed to general public for awareness.
Sarmad Ali is an advocate of High Court