Huma Younus with her parents Younus and Nagina at her baptism in 2005. (Photo supplied)
“Let there be no compulsion in religion,” states the Quran in verse 256 of Surah al-Baqara, advocating freedom of and from religion.
However, in Faisalabad city in Punjab province, the hearing of Farah Shaheen, a 12-year-old victim of forced conversion, was finally held this week at the district court.
“Police reported they could not find the victim and accused. Senior Civil Judge of Faisalabad Imran Nazir ordered the police to recover the victim and arrest the accused and present in court on November 11,” Atif Jamil Pagaan, a Catholic lawyer representing Punjab's Ministry of Human Rights, said in a Facebook post.
Shaheen was kidnapped by three Muslims in June from her house in the Ahmedabad area of Faisalabad.
“They dragged her in a white Suzuki Carry grasping her hair. She was kidnapped for adultery. I am a poor man belonging to the Christian community. The accused have issued death threats to my family. I request the recovery of my daughter,” her father said in a Sept. 3 application to police.
The family found new hope last month when the Christian community started nationwide protests for Arzoo Raja, a 13-year-old Catholic girl who was allegedly abducted, forcibly converted to Islam and married off to her 44-year-old Muslim abductor. Medical tests confirmed the girl to be a minor.
After sharing their details with a group of protesting Christians in Faisalabad, they started appearing on social media calling for the release of their daughter before holding a press conference.
Encouraged by the growing momentum to protect underage daughters being trapped in forced marriages and forced conversions, another grieving mother made online appeals for Huma Younus, 14, who was abducted on Oct. 10 last year from her Karachi home by a Muslim man and his two accomplices.
This is the first time the Christian community has united for a cause since 2001 when the national campaign for the abolition of separate electorates started in the country. Before that, in 1992, the late Bishop John Joseph spearheaded a successful countrywide protest against the government’s attempt to make people state their religion on applications for a national identity card.
Credit goes to a tech-savvy pastor who regularly films the struggle of Arzoo’s mother banging her head in the corridors of justice via Facebook Live. Her latest video has 44,000 views and 1,800 likes.
The discussions on forced conversions and marriages of underage girls are now reverberating in Zoom conferences, church halls and roadside protests. Frames titled “Justice for Arzoo” are now trending for profile pictures on Facebook. Lawmakers are already submitting bills against underage marriages.
Besides waging legal battles, the Catholic Church is slowly harnessing the power of the internet for further sensitization. Earlier this month, the Diocese of Islamabad-Rawalpindi became a YouTuber with the launch of a new channel.
More than 500 people have already subscribed to the channel that offers programs on faith formation, family life and talk shows among diocesan programs. Archbishop Joseph Arshad, head of the Commission for Social Communications, plans to train volunteer youth as anchor persons and presenters. The selected theme of “A journey of Peace and Hope” for the channel heralds good news for the persecuted minority.
According to Father Nasir William, director of the Commission for Social Communications in Islamabad-Rawalpindi Diocese, the channel will help dispel misconceptions about Christianity.
“It will address the questions posed at our community that often faces religious issues. We are helpless without social media,” he told me.
National as well as international pressure forced movement in rusted state machinery to intervene in sensitive topics like forced conversion. Sadly, our constitution is silent on the age limitation for conversion to Islam. A few clerics are misusing this lacuna in the law.
Bringing Arzoo back might be impossible given her recent pro-Islam statements. Most of the victims of forced conversions in government-run shelter houses are brainwashed to become life partners of their kidnappers instead of returning to their parents.
Nullifying her marriage and ordering her return to Christianity is now the biggest challenge for Sindh High Court. Both court orders and coverage in secular media are now referring to her by the Islamic name of Arzoo Fatima. The whole system seems to accept her new religion.
Freeing victims of forced conversions is like freeing war prisoners from the enemy state, some say. Muslims rights activists condemned the pedophile, but others called it an attempt to get a European visa, welcomed the converted sister and rebuffed critics of forced conversion.
Farah, Arzoo and Huma are only a few faces of an age-old pandemic that has mainly affected Christians in Punjab and Hindus in southern Sindh province.
Social media activism, poverty alleviation programs for religious minorities and a higher literacy rate can help win this war on reprehensible sexual injustice. Supporting campaigns for children’s rights and gender justice can prevent our daughters from becoming the next Arzoo Raja. Allegations of forced conversions neither benefit Islam nor the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
Kamran Chaudhry is a Catholic commentator based in Lahore. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.