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A year of conversions and coronavirus in Pakistan

Let's hope 2021 brings more good news for our country and a cure for the pandemic of prejudice

A year of conversions and coronavirus in Pakistan

Arzoo Raja is escorted to Sindh High Court in Karachi on Nov. 9. (Photo: Nadim Bhatti)

What an experience 2020 has been. While much of the world came to a stop at times during the pandemic, the Pakistan Church continued the battle against blasphemy and forced conversions.

The walls of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Lahore share the highlights of this year’s long struggles.

“Wear a mask, save yourself and others” and “We strongly condemn the kidnapping of 13-year-old Arzoo [Raja] and her forceful conversion and marriage to a 44-year-old person” state the banners at its entrance. Other banners express solidarity with Muslim siblings in condemning the blasphemous statements by French President Emmanuel Macron and atrocities in Kashmir.

Certainly, it was an exceptionally difficult year with the world in virus crisis. For the first time in the history of Pakistan, Christians had to pray at home on Easter Sunday. The three-day national pilgrimage to Mariamabad, the "city of Mary" in Lahore Archdiocese, was canceled.

For the first time, elections for the Custos of the Capuchins in Pakistan were held online and the Capuchin friars sent their preferences by email to the headquarters in Belgium, the Franciscan Province to which the Custody in Pakistan is linked. The plans for the Year of Youth, inaugurated by Pakistan Catholic Bishops’ Conference, were also affected.

Churches had been shuttered even before Prime Minister Imran Khan declared a national lockdown in March. The pressure increased on churches who were not ready or trained to respond to the twin emergencies of Covid-19 and annual floods.

Despite the permission to reopen churches in May, Archbishop Sebastian Shaw of Lahore continues holding online prayers to help those fighting the virus that has infected 460,672 people in Pakistan with 9,474 deaths. His decision is quite opposite to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Bangladesh, which decided to suspend live broadcasting of Sunday Masses on social media site Facebook in October amid the second wave of the pandemic.

The uncertainty is at its peak for the much awaited winter weddings. According to the standard operating procedures issued by the administration of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Lahore, cake cutting has been banned inside churches or feasts in church compounds. Only 20 people are allowed with the bride and groom. Amid the sudden government guidelines and directives, families are now making back-up plans and even back-ups of back-up plans for engaged couples.

The pandemic adversely affected the income of churches by as much as 80 percent, according to Pakistan Partnership Initiative, a Christian organization based in Islamabad. A report titled "Impacts of Covid-19 on the Livelihoods of Christians in Pakistan" claimed 70 percent of Christians, particularly daily wagers and laborers, lost their jobs or reported reduced income during the nationwide lockdown. Instead of one-time distributions, the Church and its aid agencies should make long-term plans to rehabilitate those affected.

That’s because those vulnerable are left more vulnerable.

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According to Cecil Chaudhry, executive director of the National Commission of Justice and Peace, this year has seen a rise of incidents of forced conversions and marriages, hate speech against religious and sectarian minorities, and killings in the name of religion.

“These alarming conditions have placed Pakistan on the list of the countries in a state of lawlessness and an emergency for human rights,” he told me in a recent email.

“Pakistan is currently passing through its third democratic transition while attempting to foster the rule of law and state of human rights. However, in the case of ensuring the due rights of religious minorities in the country, since the 18th constitutional amendment (that decentralized political power in the country) to date, no legislation or policy to this the effect has been witnessed.”

Noam Chomsky, a world-renowned philosopher and cognitive scientist, was even more worried.

“Pakistan has an advanced scientific establishment, Nobel Prize laureates and so on. Pakistan has no future if it's going to live in a world of religious superstition,” said Chomsky, a speaker at a virtual session that as part of the flagship Yohsin Lecture Series of Habib University in Karachi.

The year saw a number of Christian families facing cases of forced conversions. The most high-profile case was of Arzoo Raja, a 13-year-old Catholic girl who was kidnapped, forcibly converted to Islam and married off to a 44-year-old Muslim man in the southern port city of Karachi. It served as a lightning rod for more families facing similar challenges but silenced due to pressure from police or society.  

Six years after the Supreme Court of Pakistan, in a landmark judgment in 2014, called on the government to set up a body to protect the constitutional rights of minorities, Prime Minister Imran Khan finally approved the establishment of a much awaited National Commission for Minorities.

However, church commissions and minority groups strongly rejected it on the basis that it was not formed through a legislative act of parliament, nor does it comply with international obligations and treaties that Pakistan is a party to. The commission is especially unpopular for not issuing even a single statement on forced conversions.

The hope

In a year when it has been easy to be pessimistic, we can always use good news. The Lahore-based Center for Social Justice observed a decrease in forced conversions from 49 cases reported last year to 13 cases up to November 2020.

In a recent press conference, Tahir Mehmood Ashrafi, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s special representative on religious harmony, publicly acknowledged the misuse of blasphemy laws. He later announced that Pakistan is setting up a special center to examine forced religious conversion and the underage marriage of minority girls.

Many attribute these developments as efforts to exit the “grey list" of countries with inadequate controls over terrorism financing. The Financial Action Task Force placed Pakistan on the grey list in June 2018.

2020 concluded with the death of two iconic religious leaders: Sri Lankan Bishop Victor Gnanapragasam of the apostolic vicariate of Quetta and hardline Pakistani cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, who weaponized blasphemy laws. Both represent two sides of the same coin and fought ideological battles for the soul of Pakistan. The former left his country to serve persecuted minorities. The latter orchestrated that fear.

It is up to the authorities to select either of the ways forward and learn from the experience of yesteryear. We all want to forget 2020 but it is important to keep close what were the problems for vulnerable groups, including religious minorities, and reflect on them. Let's hope 2021 brings more good news for our country and a cure for the pandemic of prejudice. Hopefully, when Christmas rolls around next year, we won’t have to see each other only via Zoom meetings.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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