After Hindus, Pakistani Christians forced into conversion
Victims of forced conversions are often girls from poor backgrounds who are unable to defend themselves against extremists because their community is deprived, defenceless and marginalised, reports Amir Mir
While Pakistan's Hindu minority community is already disturbed over the rising incidents of kidnapping of young Hindu girls and their forced conversion to Islam, the conditions for the country's Christian minority are equally antagonising. They too are being forced by fanatic Muslims to convert to Islam, making them wonder if they still have a place in Pakistan.
"There is no compulsion in religion," is a well-known saying that most Pakistanis who live in the land of the pure often tend to forget. While religion encourages conversions, it in no way tolerates coercion. But that is what the Christian community in Pakistan says is happening. With 1.6 per cent of the population and some three million believers, the Christian minority in Pakistan is the second largest religious minority after Hindus.
Available figures show that on average, eight to ten Christians are being forced every month by fanatic Muslims to convert to Islam, mostly in Sindh and Punjab provinces.
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Victims are often poor girls
The victims of forced conversions are often girls from poor backgrounds who are then subjected to harrowing and extremely traumatic ordeals. Most of them are extremely vulnerable and are unable to defend themselves against extremists because their community is deprived, defenceless and marginalised. Christians, who constitute just about two percent of the Pakistani population, are paying a high price for being a part of the minority community.
This is despite the fact that at the time of independence, the founder of Pakistan, Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah had pledged to create a secular and liberal environment in the country where all religions could thrive. But a gradual Islamisation of the Pakistani state and the society in the 1970s by the martial law regime of General Ziaul Haq led to the enforcement of controversial blasphemy laws in Pakistan to force more and more Hindu and Christian minority members to abandon their religions and convert to Islam.
Allegations of forced conversion of Hindu women, which were endorsed by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), have already brought to light the dilemma faced by the minority Hindu community.
However, many recent examples of forced conversion of Christian girls in Sindh and Punjab have come to light recently. In the first instance, Sidra Bibi, 14, was abducted and raped by a Muslim in her village in the Sheikhupura district of the Pakistani Punjab. Her abductor instantly converted her to Islam by threatening to kill her. Although Sidra became pregnant as a result of the abuse, she was lucky enough to have managed to escape from her abductor and find her way back to her family.
Sidra and her family members tried to lodge a complaint with the police in a bid to get justice, but they were refused the chance due to the fact that the abductors were influential people of the area.
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Cases of forced conversion in Pakistan
In the second case of forced conversion, Tina Barkat, a 28-year-old Christian girl, was befriended by a young Muslim woman who started persuading her to convert to Islam. As Tina refused, she was kidnapped by the friend's family and given in marriage to a male member of the family against her will. In the third instance, Samina Ayub, a 17-year-old from a small town near Lahore, was kidnapped by a Muslim and forced to convert to Islam, renamed Fatima Bibi, and forced to marry according to Muslim rites. The abduction was reported to the police but they have failed to take action against the kidnapper and Samina remains in his possession.
In the fourth case, Shazia Bibi, a 19-year-old from Gujranwala in Punjab Province, used to work as a maid at the grocery store of a Muslim. A boy working at the shop fell in love with her and she was forced to marry him after converting to Islam. Shazia's family has succeeded in taking the case to court but their daughter has not yet been recovered. Similarly, Uzma Bibi, a 15-year-old Christian girl and Saira Bibi, 20, both from Lahore, were kidnapped by Muslim neighbours and subsequently forced to convert to Islam besides marrying Muslims.
These instances of forced conversions have been taking place in Pakistan whose founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah had stated in his presidential address to the constituent assembly of Pakistan on August 11, 1947: "You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the state....Now I think we should keep that in front of us as our ideal and you will find that in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the state."
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A majority of the Christians in Pak have the worst jobs
Similarly, Article 25 (1) of the Constitution of Pakistan 1973 describes, "All citizens are equal before law and are entitled to equal protection of law." 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. But practically speaking, the situation on ground is altogether different.
Despite the fact that Pakistan was created 67 years ago with a pledge for equal rights for minorities, the state seems unable to own religious minorities. The majority of Christian coming from rural areas across Pakistan live in ghettos or colonies in the big cities. As a consequence of the cast system legacy, a majority of the Christians have the worst jobs, as toilet cleaners and street sweepers.
The Capital Development Authority of Islamabad recently put up a few banners on the Islamabad Expressway, inviting the Christian community to apply for janitorial jobs vacant at the authority. Although, Pakistani Christians from poor background mostly serve as janitors and cleaners since 1947, for a government department of the federal capital to declare the janitorial jobs solely reserved for Christians is sickening. It is shameful that the Pakistani society tolerates, accepts and practices disgraceful and repulsive behaviour every day, all in the name of Islam. We, the majority community of Pakistan, should hang our heads in shame.
Image: Pakistani Christians carry a cross through the streets of Quetta while observing Good Friday
Photographs: Naseer Ahmed/Reuters