Jailed Christians forced to convert to Islam, a disgrace on the justice system says Pakistani Church
The accused are asked to change religion in exchange for their release. The latest case sparks protest among Christians. Girls are converted by force to marry Muslims whilst Christians men who marry Muslim are beaten and their homes torched. Even Asia Bibi was offered to convert to Islam.
Lahore (AsiaNews) – Religious leaders and Christian activists are calling for action against a prosecutor who confessed to pushing Christian prisoners to give up their faith to embrace Islam.
This comes after Pakistani media reported that Deputy District Public Prosecutor Syed Anees Shah told 42 Christian prisoners before an anti-terrorism court in Lahore, Punjab, that he could “guarantee their acquittal” if they converted to Islam.
Contacted by a British newspaper, Shah first denied the allegation then conceded that he had offered them a choice.
The Christians involved in the case are all from Youhanabad, Lahore. They were arrested in connection with the lynching of two suspected Muslim terrorists shortly after the Taliban attacked two churches on 15 March 2015.
“It is really bad to lead people astray,” said Rev Arshad Ashknaz of Christ Church, from one of the churches attacked in Youhanabad, speaking to AsiaNews. “This,” he added, “will give a bad image to the court and the whole legal fraternity.
In his view, “The public prosecutor can be sued for this prejudiced action. We plan to meet him soon. The government should reject this. Fear of death can force anyone to change religion”.
This has not happened in isolation. Forced conversions are a hot topic in the country. Pakistani human rights organisations note that each year about a thousand Hindu and Christian women are forced to convert to marry Muslim men.
According to the latest Report on religious minorities in Pakistan by the National Commission for Justice and Peace of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Pakistan, five Christians converted to Islam in 2014, including three teenager girls who were abducted and forced into marriage.
Against the backdrop, Sindh last year became the first Pakistani province to pass a law against forced religious conversions. However, the provincial government was forced to go back on its decision to protect minorities after opposition from some religious scholars.
For Rev Ashknaz, “There is no religious freedom. The whole system supports Christian women who marry their Muslim spouses, but it is a torment for Christian men who do the same. Their families suffer and their houses are burnt”.
According to Nadeem Anthony, a Christian lawyer, Asia Bibi, the Christian mother on death row for the past seven years charged with blaspheming the Prophet Mohammad, was made a similar offer.
However, “My faith is alive and I will never convert”, she told him when they met at the Sheikhupura District Jail in 2010.
“This is a common practice. Even my Muslim friends asked me to do the same. Such impositions are expected in cases of religious persecution”, said the lawyer, who is also a human rights activist.