Forced conversion is one of the ugliest outcomes of religious fundamentalism. Unfortunately, the number of checks and measures is not nearly enough to dent both social evils. As per one of the recent incidents coming to light, Farah, a 12-year-old Christian girl says she was taken from her home in Faisalabad, shackled, forced to convert to Islam and was then made to marry her kidnapper.
Hers is one of the many similar cases of forced conversions that minor girls have to go through. As per Sharia Law, marriages under the age of 16 are acceptable if both of those marrying are Muslims. At the time of the last census, there were about two million Christians in Pakistan, which is just over 1 percent of the population. As per reports, in 2017 Pakistani authorities excluded Sikhs from their census. It has also been reported that the Sikh population is close to extinction in Pakistan, from 40,000 Sikhs, the number has now come down to 8000.
The case of 12-year-old Farah
The incident happened on June 25 when she was at her home with her grandfather, three brothers and two sisters. When the knocking on the door was answered, three men barged in, grabbed Farah and forced her into a van parked outside the house.
Farah's father Asif, who was at work at the time, later said in an interview that the men threatened the family of dire and regrettable consequences. When Asif went to the nearest police station, while even providing the name of one of the abductors, the officers showed complete lack of interest. "They were very uncooperative and refused to register the crime. Not only that but they pushed me around and verbally abused me," said Asif in an interview with BBC.
All this while, it's frightening to even imagine the fate of Farah, who was driven 110 kms away to a house in Hafizabad, raped, chained on the ankles and kept like a slave.
It took three months to finally register the incident and five months to rescue the abducted girl when in last December her case came up before Faisalabad's District and Sessions Court and the magistrate sent her to a shelter for women and children.
Last month, judges ruled that Farah's marriage was invalid and she was reunited with her family, thanks to her marriage not having been registered properly. While Farah's case might be over for now, but the chapter is far from closed in Pakistan. As per The National Council of Churches in Pakistan (NCCP), the number of such abductions is increasing.
Similar case, sad story
While Farah got reunited with her family, 14-year-old Christian girl Maria Shahbaz, managed to escape from the clutches of her abductor. She and her family have been forced to go underground after the death threats. Recently, a petition with 12,500 signatures was handed to the UK government. The petition organized by the UK-based charity Aid to the Church in Need has also been signed by 30 British Parliamentarians and calls for Maria to be granted asylum in the UK.
What is the government's stance?
Pakistan PM Imran Khan has ordered an investigation into the forced conversion of religious minorities and his special representative on religious harmony Tahir Mehmood Ashrafi has strongly condemned the practice and said that forced abduction, marriage and conversion of girls will not be tolerated. But the activists and investigative reports suggest that ground reality will take a long time to change.
Forced conversion of minorities, nothing new in Pakistan
Last September, Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) Women Wing, Delhi State organised a candle march starting at Teen Murti Bhawan and terminating at Pakistan High Commission, New Delhi, as one of the silent ways of registering protest and condemnation against the forced conversion of Sikh girls in Pakistan which came to light.
As per the USCIRF Annual Report 2020, "In Hindu, Sikh, Christian communities, young women, often underage, continue to be kidnapped for forced conversion to Islam." The report further put forward disturbing statistic. It states that 1000 women are forcibly converted to Islam each year and to make matters worse, local police are often accused of complicity in these cases by failing to investigate properly.