Lahore (AsiaNews/TNS) – On a sunny afternoon in the second week of February 2011, 45-year-old Azra Bibi, clad in black shawl, entered the reception of Jamia Naeemia with her ten year old son, a leading Sunni-Barelvi madrassa situated in a congested area of Lahore. Accompanied by a 45-year-old Muslim witness Chaudhry Muhammad Islam, Azra a recent convert to Islam along with her six children asked for the imam of the Jamia. She has come here to get proper documents to prove in the court that she was no longer a Christian.
The young receptionist at Jamia Naeemia talks to the principal on telephone opens the side drawer of his dented metal table and pulls out a two-inch-thick book wrapped in a blue cover. He finds a blank page and starts writing her details.
The book is a registry used to keep record of religious conversions to Islam. One book is enough to record 100 cases of conversions. A newly built wooden cabinet brimming with many such books is used to store the record. Officials at the Madrassa say the number of people converting from other religions, especially Christianity, to Islam is on the rise here. At least 50 to 60 Christians embrace Islam each month by signing a white and green paper on the book declaring that they accept Islam without any greed or pressure and promise to ‘remain in the religion of Islam for the rest of the life’, and will try to spend life according to the principles of Islam.
Raghib Naeemi, Principal Jamia Naeemia, says that his institute has no department for preaching. “All those who convert to Islam come to Jamia on their own, accompanied by some Muslims of their locality as witnesses. We have made it a prerequisite for the aspirant converts to submit an affidavit declaring that they are embracing Islam without greed or force.” He says that all Christians who convert to Islam do not do so because they like this religion. “Some of them convert to Islam because they want to end their marriage which is not easy in Christianity, or they want to marry a cousin or a Muslim girl or boy. Over 90 per cent of the converts are illiterate.”
The record at Jamia Naeemia reveals that 678 Christians converted to Islam in 2009, the number reached 693 in 2010 while 95 Christians have so far embraced Islam this year.
Badshahi Mosque is another institution that issues certificate to those who convert to Islam. Muhammad Yousuf, assistant protocol officer at the mosque, says rarely a day goes without some cases of conversion. “Sometimes dozens of people convert to Islam during a day. Overwhelming, majority of them come from Christian minority,” he tells TNS.
Peter Jacob, Executive Director of National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP), an advocacy organisation funded by the Catholic Church, says it is no surprise some of Pakistan’s three millions Christians are adopting Islam nowadays. “These are troublesome and dangerous days for the country’s religious minorities. People have no faith in the police or the justice system and the kind of fear that exists now was never there before,” he says.
Legally, there is no bar on religious conversion. “But in Pakistan only one-way conversion to Islam is allowed that can be very fatal to religious diversity in the country. It is not only Christians in Pakistan who are scared. All minorities are under pressure.”
Jacob thinks that security has become a major reason for marginalised and discriminated Christian community to convert to Islam. “Blasphemy laws are also being misused to pressurise Christians to convert to Islam.”
Last month Shahbaz Bhatti, the only minister in federal cabinet belonging to a minority religion, was assassinated in Islamabad. Taliban reportedly claimed responsibility for the killing, saying the minister had been “punished” for being a blasphemer.
Azra Bibi—whose husband remains Christian and lives separately from his wife and children—says that she has converted to Islam only because she feels it is the most beautiful religion. “Now, it feels great and I have moved to a Muslim neighbourhood. I feel safer.” A woman from the neighbourhood comes to them daily after dinner to teach her and her children Islam and its practices.
That day at the Madrassa, as Azra Bibi collected her certificate declaring her a Muslim and prepared to leave, a young couple entered the reception. Parvaiz Masih, a 23-year-old auto rickshaw driver and his 22-year-old cousin Nasreen seemed in a hurry to convert to Islam. But the officials at Jamia were hesitant, as they did not have two Muslim witnesses accompanying them. “I like Islam and want to embrace it. I want to be known as Muhammad Parvaiz. I will be secure now and will take decisions of my choice after converting to Islam”.
Masih’s reference was her marriage to his cousin, Nasreen—who had slipped away from her home to come to Jamia with him. She was hesitant to elaborate why she wanted to convert to Islam. “I like Islam,” was all she said.
Joseph Francis, National Director, Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS), believes that all these conversions are forced. “Jamia Naeemia or Badshahi Mosque officials do not look into the reasons why people have been converting to Islam. We have also found that in many cases young Christian girls are abducted and married off to Muslim men. They are also forced to change their religion and there is no process available to get them released as once they are declared Muslims, they cannot come back to Christianity.” He says his organisation had received seven such cases in 2008, four in 2009 and six in 2010.
The preamble to the constitution of Pakistan guarantees that adequate provision shall be made for minorities to freely profess and practice their religions and develop their culture. The Enforcement of Shariah Act 1991 was promulgated on June 18, 1991 whereby the Islamic Shariah was enforced as the supreme law of the land. But under clause 4 of Section 1, it was provided that “Nothing contained in this Act shall affect the personal laws, religious freedom, traditions, customs and way of life of the non-Muslims.”
But the situation on ground is altogether different. For instance, Tahir Iqbal, a Muslim who converted to Christianity was accused of committing blasphemy in 1990 in Lahore. Then additional session judge of Lahore dismissed his bail application on July 7, 1991, and passed the following order:
“Learned counsel for the petitioner has conceded before me that the petitioner has converted to Christianity. With this admission on the part of the petitioner’s counsel there is no need to probe further into allegations. Since conversion is in itself a cognizable offence involving serious implications, I do not consider the petitioner is entitled to bail at this stage”. Interestingly, there is no law in Pakistan that makes conversion from Islam to any other religion an offence.
Human Right activists say there is no mechanism to gauge whether the Christians converting to Islam have been doing it under their own free will or duress. “We receive many cases every year in which Christian girls are abducted and forced to marry Muslim men,” I.A. Rehman, Director Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, tells TNS. “Security is a major reason these days for minorities to convert to Islam. We have registered cases in which people are deprived of their jobs on the basis of their faith, admissions to colleges and schools are denied and then there are social taboos that result in discrimination. All these factors can lead to religious conversion.”
* Aoun Sahi is a Pakistani Muslim journalist with The News International.