LAHORE: Representatives of the churches in Pakistan under the banner of the National Council of Churches in a press conference at Saint Peter’s School on Monday condemned the increasing number of cases being reported of forced conversions and marriages of underage girls belonging to the minority communities.
President of the National Council of Churches of Pakistan, Bishop Azad Marshall said that the church leadership was well aware of the girls being abducted and forcibly converted, and had been monitoring such cases closely.
He said they were ready to take some concrete steps in this regard.
He said that it was the girl child who ended up suffering at the end.
“She suffers from physical, mental and emotional trauma as a result of the abduction, the forced conversion and the child marriages,” he said. “The cases of 13-year-old Arzoo Raja of Karachi and 14-year-old Maira Shahbaz of Faisalabad, were highlighted in the media, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many other cases that go unreported due to societal pressure and fear of any action taken by the accused.”
He added that the two main religious minorities in Pakistan, the Christians and Hindus, are unfortunately both victims of these crimes but the federal and provincial governments are yet to take concrete measures to help provide them protection and eliminate these social evils.
“Despite the presence of relevant laws, these are not being fully implemented,” he said.
“The other thing is that through our own observation we have learnt that that law enforcement agencies and other forums of justice have actually been facilitating such crimes, because of which the crimes have been increasing.”
He also said it was unfortunate that abduction and forcible conversion of a minor girl was accorded a degree of permanence and irreversibility through marriage to a Muslim adult without ascertaining the circumstances and intellectual, emotional and social maturity of the child while making such declarations of consent.
“Often declarations of consent are unclear and difficult to determine whether they were uncoerced, or if they were the consequence of threats, psychological abuse and conditioning, fear of social stigma and rebuke,” he said.
“We believe that Islam is a religion that does not compel people of other faiths to convert. Article 20 of the Constitution also guarantees every citizen the right to profess, practice and propagate his religion; therefore, it is the State’s obligation to protect its minorities from such crimes that are spreading fear and insecurity in our people.”
Marshall said he had also decided to move the Supreme Court to identify and fix the lacunas in the existing laws to ensure the protection of the girl child.
“We also urge Islamic scholars and government officials to sit with us and develop a mechanism for judging instances of religious conversion of children,” he said.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister’s Special Representative on Religious Harmony Allama Tahir Mehmood Ashrafi who was also present at the press conference tried to quell the concerns of the church authorities and the Christian community and said that the PM had ordered investigation on case to case basis of incidents of forced conversions of minor girls belonging to the minority communities.
“No one, whether a person or a group would be allowed to exploit minor children in the name of religion,” he said.
“We have found out that a majority of such cases are an outcome of sexual exploitation and have no relation with Islam. Our religion forbids forced conversions and all people using religion to cover their crimes will be brought to justice.”