Allegations of forced conversions are a contentious issue in Pakistan. (Image: Pixabay)
A police station in Punjab’s capital Lahore has registered its first blasphemy case against a Christian filed by his own family.
Anwar Masih was arrested on June 2 for insulting the Prophet Muhammad. According to a police first information report, the complainants are his wife Kausar Parveen and his daughter Samreen. Both have accused Masih of abusing family members and Islam. The women, who submitted a telephone audio recording to police, run a beauty parlor in Lahore.
Samreen was secretly married to Akash Maqsood, a Muslim, and converted to Islam, according to the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS) UK, a Christian charity dedicated to helping persecuted Christians in Pakistan.
“She is now eight months pregnant. Masih was unaware of the all these matters; he was shocked and furious. Many would say his reaction was natural. The mother and daughter are now living in hiding,” said CLAAS UK director Nasir Saeed in a June 8 statement.
“Perhaps this is the first case of its kind in Pakistan as normally such cases are reported by Muslims who have rivalries or want to settle personal scores. This is another example of the misuse of the blasphemy law where a daughter gets rid of her father, and a wife her husband, simply because he cannot accept what they have done. Masih will have to wait years and years to prove himself innocent and has no future.”
Even if the mother and daughter regret their decision, the family has been broken and will never be the same again, Saeed added.
Blasphemy is a sensitive issue in Pakistan, where allegations of insulting Islam can mobilize an entire village. Human rights activists say the law is often employed to settle scores.
According to the latest annual report of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, at least 17 people convicted of blasphemy were still on death row in December 2019.
“Allegations of forced conversions continued to be a contentious issue. Cases of kidnapping and forced conversion are always accompanied by controversy over whether the girls involved converted and married of their own free will,” the report states.
“At present, forced conversions are too easily — and too often — disguised as voluntary conversions, leaving minor girls especially vulnerable. The ugly reality of forced conversions is that they are not seen as a crime, much less as a problem that should concern ‘mainstream’ [Muslim] Pakistan."
Most cases of abduction and forced conversion of Hindu girls are reported from Sindh province, which has a large Hindu population However, the debate took a new turn this year when All Pakistan Hindu Panchayat (APHP) claimed that most marriages between Hindu women and Muslim men were the result of love affairs.
“It is love in most cases, even if it involves a minor girl. Due to honor, the family members of women concoct stories of abduction and forced conversions,” said Ravi Dawani, the APHP general secretary based in Karachi, the capital of Sindh province.
The debate was reignited among activists in Lahore when a court in Punjab’s capital on June 5 dismissed an abduction case involving Mehwish Hadayt, a Christian teenager who worked in a factory in the Youhanabad area.
Shehnaz Bibi filed a police complaint stating that her daughter was reportedly abducted at gunpoint by three factory workers. However, in her statement to a judge, Hadayt said she had embraced Islam and married her Muslim supervisor of her own free will. She also filed an application for the release of her husband, a father of two.
“She left home because of poverty. Educate our children. This won’t happen if they study. I appeal to Christian leaders and brothers to end this poverty. Give good jobs to our children,” said Bibi.
In 2018, the Movement for Solidarity and Peace released a report that claimed that around 1,000 Christian and Hindu women in Pakistan are forcibly converted to Islam and married to Muslim men every year. About 70 percent are Christians, it stated.
Christian researcher Asif Aqeel rejected the report.
“The references, ranging from state departments to foreign media, do not exist. The problem in reported forced conversions is that we become blind to our own shortcomings,” he said.
“Only Christian, Hindu and Sikh communities report conversions by force. Many Hindus do not allow their daughters to attend schools; their conversions have complex layers of caste and status. Christian girls look for a possibility of a better life than choosing jobless vagabonds and drug addicts.”
Church leaders blame discriminatory treatment of Christians for lack of employment opportunities, poor access to education and continued poverty. Government and army advertisements often offer only menial employment to Christians — for example, sanitation jobs — a stance that horrifies the minority community.
Church of Pakistan Bishop Azad Marshall of Raiwind regrets Shehnaz Bibi’s comments about her daughter’s situation.
“Conversion should be a spiritual experience. Poverty may be a factor but it’s not the whole story. There is also sociocultural pressure. One person alone cannot fulfill such a big need. The church is considered a solution for every problem. The church should be a uniting force and source of spiritual education. Civil society members should support her with a united forum,” he said.
“Christian youths prefer working in church organizations for security. People avoid dining with them and they are looked down upon in other professional jobs.
“But the church should not be employed for the community. We have been weak in spiritual formation of the community, but the pandemic gives us time to move forward and reorganize ourselves. NGOs are not accountable — they come and go — but the church gets all the blame because we remain with the community.”