05/30/2006, 00.00
PAKISTAN

Around 600 people a year are forcely converted to Islam

Qaiser Felix

A meeting about the practice was organized by the Minority Rights Commission of Pakistan. The courts were accused of being too dependent on their Islamic environment. A Catholic bishop said the feudal mentality and the economy also play a part.

Lahore (AsiaNews) – The same Islam that pronounces death for conversion to another religion, forces women married to Muslims to become Muslims too. Forced conversions figures reach between 500 to 600 people a year in Pakistan, although "national media report only 100 such cases" that police and the courts "treat prejudicially". This was the most significant conclusion of a meeting on "Forced Conversion of Women and Minorities Rights in Pakistan" held on 26 May in a hotel in Lahore.

More than 50 human rights activists, lawyers and representatives of religious minorities from four provinces of Pakistan participated in the consultation organized by the Minority Rights Commission of Pakistan (MRC).

Khaliq Shah – MRC member – outlined the aims of the meeting: to highlight this important issue at national level; to launch a campaign against forced conversions; to analyze the causes and to review the law. Shah, who has been researching the topic for a long time, said: "The problem is especially present among poorer and marginalized social groups".

I.A. Rehman, member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said that according to the Universal declaration of Human Rights, every individual can join any faith of his choice and practice that faith freely, and no one can force him to change his belief. "From this perspective, free conversion is no problem but forced conversions should be banned; this issue must be debated," he said.

"In Pakistan we do not have any law against forced conversion and converting from Islam to any other religion means death. To change this state of affairs, we must consider the issue as a struggle for democracy and invite Muslims as well to these meetings, so they can help us to better understand all points of view of the argument".

Mgr Joseph Coutts, bishop of Faisalabad, was also present at the meeting. "This is a delicate problem and each of us should contribute towards resolving it. At the root of the problem are factors like feudalism and the country's socio-economic structure. When we discuss forced conversions, we must talk about these aspects too."

Kalyan Singh, a Sikh participant said one of the toughest challenges to overcome was the "subjection of judges to Islamic clerics. Judges do not manage to deal with such cases neutrally because they are scared of the revenge of religious extremists."

Joseph Francis, of the Center for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement took up this argument. "Our organization has dealt with hundreds of forced conversion cases. Not even the judges of the High Courts deal with such cases objectively. Parents are not allowed to talk to their daughters and many forcibly converted girls are made to be prostitutes."

In conclusion, participants "forcefully and unanimously condemned forced conversions" and called on the government to "abolish personal laws and to punish those who indulge in such practices".

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