Christian minor escapes forced conversion in Pakistan
“MY SISTER AND I HAD BEEN ASKING FOR NEW CLOTHES, but my parents couldn’t afford it. My mother only worked in two houses. We wanted to support our parents,” 15-year-old Saba told Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). A month after waiting for the promised dress on Easter, Saba decided to join her mother to earn extra income by cleaning houses.
On May 5, 2022, at 9:30 am, on her way to clean a home, she was abducted by her Muslim neighbor, Yasir, a construction worker.
“He stopped the rickshaw in a street. Two others arrived on a motorcycle. He pushed aside my elder sister and pulled me inside the rickshaw. He placed a handkerchief, soaked with intoxicating chemical, on my face,” Saba told ACN.
Saba woke up in Gujrat, 130 miles northeast of Faisalabad. “I pleaded to let me return to my parents and I even quit eating for a few days. But he didn’t give in,” said Saba.
Soon after, Faisalabad police informed her father, Nadeem Masih, a sanitation worker, that Saba had married Yasir. “The duty officer asked us to leave and wait for the nikahnama (Islamic marriage contract),” said Masih, who is a member of Smyrna Church of Pakistan, a Protestant Church.
Religious minorities continue to live in fear in Pakistan where the majority of those forcibly converted are low-caste Hindus from the southern Sindh province and Christians from Punjab province. Local clerics then issue nikahnama documenting the victim’s marriage to their Muslim abductors. Poverty, lack of education and low social status makes underage minority girls vulnerable to forced marriage and conversion.
The Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929 mandates that girls cannot marry before the age of 16 and boys must be 18 or older. However, in Sindh province the local government raised the age to 16 for both sexes, making child marriage a punishable offense.
However, there are no age restrictions on conversion to Islam and a certificate from a certain religious school or a cleric is readily presented as evidence of an allegedly valid conversion. Incidents of forced conversions routinely receive media attention, especially when the girl is underage. However, while parents may manage to lodge a case with the police, the latter often fail to recover the girl. In many cases parents, out of fear, fail to go to the police.
According to the Lahore-based Center for Social Justice (CSJ), an independent research and advocacy organization, at least 78 cases of forced or involuntary conversions of 39 Hindu and 38 Christian minor girls, besides a Sikh girl, were reported in 2021 alone. By some estimates the number of annual instances of forced marriage and conversion is much higher. Some 1,000 women from religious minorities such as Christians and Hindus are forcibly converted and married annually in Pakistan, Forbes magazine reported in February 2021, quoting human rights organizations.
At least two important bills, the Domestic Violence Prevention and Protection Bill 2020 and the Prohibition of Forced Conversions Bill 2021, could not be passed last year due to objections by the Council of Islamic Ideology.
To call attention to Saba’s case, Lala Robin Daniel, a Christian rights activist initiated a series of daily protests from 7pm to midnight against forced conversions and marriages of minority girls in Faisalabad.
In search of hope, the Catholic relatives of Masih brought the family to the Faisalabad diocesan office of the Catholic bishops´ National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP), whose work is supported by Aid to the Church in Need, where the staff documented their case by drafting her case study and photographing the family at Church offices. Diocesan offices are tasked to send the details of the cases of persecution to the national office NCJP in Lahore.
On May 29, Masih received a phone call from Yasir’s uncle that her daughter had been left near a park outside the Madina Town Police Station in Faisalabad.
“I took three local Christians as security to retrieve my daughter. We wept outside the police station. I wish I had taken her on a motorcycle to the house where my daughters worked. We are now awaiting Saba’s medical report from the police,” he said.
Father Khalid Rashid Asi, NCJP diocesan director, called for the arrest of the perpetrator. “Yasir lived next door; Saba used to call him her uncle. His wife claimed he had married thrice. She has agreed to give a police statement against him. He is a drug addict now at large,” he said.
“People give up in the middle. Achievements in recovering such girls is rare. But we shall never compromise on the dignity of our children. It’s a blatant human rights violation by people who misuse religion,” the priest said.