August 22nd – International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief
On the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) shares a story that illustrates the widespread problem of forced conversions and marriages. At least 78 cases of forced conversions were reported in 2021 in Pakistan.
(Cover photo: Girls in a Pakistani school. Continue to hope that the fate of minority girls can be one of education and not abduction and forced conversion and marriage).
“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 Pontifical Charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).
On May 5, 2022, at 9:30 a.m., on her way to clean a home, Saba was abducted by her Muslim neighbour 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 chemicals, on my face,” she told ACN.
Saba woke up in Gujrat, a little over 200 kilometres northeast of Faisalabad. “I pleaded to let me return to my parents and I even stopped 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 Islamic marriage contract,” said Nadeem, who is a member of the Protestant Smyrna Church of Pakistan.
Losing your daughter forever
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 Islamic marriage contracts, formalising the victim’s marriage to their Muslim abductors. Poverty, lack of education, and low social status make underage minority girls vulnerable to forced marriage and conversion.
The Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929, mandates that girls cannot marry before the age of 16 and boys must be 18 or older, and in Sindh province, the local government raised the age to 18 for both sexes in 2014, making child marriage a punishable offense.
Despite this Act, minimum age requirements are routinely ignored. Furthermore, there are no age restrictions on conversion to Islam and certificates issued by religious schools or clerics are readily presented as evidence of an allegedly valid conversion. Incidents of forced conversions and forced marriages routinely receive media attention, especially when the girl is underage. And although parents may manage to lodge a case with the police, these often fail to recover the girl, and in many cases parents, out of fear, fail to go to the authorities at all.
According to the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), an independent research and advocacy organization based in Lahore, at least 78 cases of forced or involuntary conversions of 39 Hindu and 38 Christian minors, in addition to one Sikh girl, were reported in 2021 alone. By some estimates, the number of forced marriages and conversions is much higher.
At least two important bills, the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act 2020, and the Prohibition of Forced Conversion Act, 2021, failed to become law last year, due to objections by the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII).
A story with a happy ending
In search of hope, Nadeem’s Catholic relatives brought the family to the Faisalabaddiocesan office of the Catholic Bishops’ National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP), whose work is supported by ACN, where the staff documented their case and sent details to the NCJP national office in Lahore.
On May 29, Mr. Masih received a phone call from Yasir’s uncle, claimingthat his 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. We are now awaiting Saba’s medical report from the police,” he said.
Father Khalid Rashid, diocesan director of the NCJP, called for the arrest of the perpetrator. “Yasir lived next door; Saba used to call him her uncle. His wife claimed he had married three times. She has agreed to give a police statement against him. He is a drug addict now at large,” he said.
“Success in recovering such girls is rare; people give up halfway through, but we shall never compromise on the dignity of our children. It is a blatant human rights violation by people who misuse religion,” the priest said.
For more information on this phenomenon around the world, see the report Hear Her Cries 2021