Activists of Rawadari Tehreek hold a protest against forced conversion at Lahore Press Club on Aug. 11, 2021. (Photo: Samson Salamat)
Christian leaders in Pakistan have demanded the resignation of Minister for Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony Mufti Abdul Shakoor for allegedly insulting them and their religious beliefs.
Protest against the minister began after he invited a controversial figure, who is known for being involved in marrying off Christian and Hindu girls to Muslim men and forcibly converting them to Islam, for a seminar his ministry organized on Jan. 31.
Pir Abdul Haq, alias Mian Mithu, the man in question, was invited to a seminar on "Religious Conversions: Issues, Controversies and Reality" organized at a hotel in Islamabad.
Christians of Islamabad present at the seminar raised slogans rejecting religious extremism, said a Christian leader.
They also boycotted the event after one of the speakers, a former Christian, rejected Jesus as the son of God and made false claims about the Bible, he said.
However, the ministry of religious affairs termed the seminar a success.
“A countrywide discussion on religious conversion has been initiated. A document of national narrative will be prepared with recommendations of all religions following a detailed review of such allegations," said a press release from the ministry.
It said a joint declaration about the conversion issue in Pakistan "will be presented to the international community.”
Several newly converted Muslim women and men, accused of being forcefully converted, were also invited, the press release further stated.
“They denied the impression of being forced to change [religion] by the clerics and confessed to being influenced by Islamic teachings. The speakers demanded action against elements who make false accusations of forced conversions and defame Pakistan at the global level,” the ministry added.
Christian activists including Mary James Gill, director of the Center for Law and Justice, shared a Facebook post with an X mark on the banner of the controversial seminar.
“The attitude of the federal ministry is very shameful and condemnable. Shame on participants who did not consider it appropriate to record their protests against the attempt to show other religions as false and inferior compared to the state religion,” she said.
"The courage with which the Christian participants faced this hate speech is admirable, but it would have been better if the Hindu and Sikh communities also supported them against this bigoted attitude," Gill added.
Akmal Bhatti, chairman of Minorities Alliance Pakistan, labeled Minister Shakoor as “a cleric of anarchy.”
“Christian religious or political leaders were absent from the panel. But more than that it was a pathetic attempt to counter the pressure from the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) Working Group of the United Nations Human Rights Council reviewing Pakistan’s human rights record,” he told UCA News.
Several countries, including the US, have raised specific questions, which will be reviewed by the working group during the session that will continue till Feb. 3 in Geneva.
Bhatti expressed surprise that the organizers of the seminar are still demanding proof of forced conversions despite repeated cases of blackmailing and coercion of underage minority girls.
“These incompetent people, who use religion to stay in power, are responsible for the economic, political and moral crisis in our country,” he said.
Forced conversions of Hindus and Christians to Islam are a burning issue throughout the Islamic Republic of some 220 million people.
At least 100 reported cases involving abductions, forced conversions, and forced marriages of girls and women belonging to the Christian community across Pakistan were reported between January 2019 and October 2022, according to the rights group, Voice for Justice and Jubilee Campaign.
In 2021, a parliamentary committee rejected a bill against forced conversions citing public interest. The draft proposed legalities for only “mature” non-Muslims to convert to Islam.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said that it was appalled to learn that the seminar featured not only a cleric long associated with forced conversions in the southern Sindh province, but it also asked recent converts to Islam to publicly denounce their original faith.
“Such blatant bigotry flies in the face of the government’s recent claims at Pakistan’s fourth UPR that it is committed to freedom of religion or belief,” stated the commission in a statement issued Feb.1.
There is no law against religious conversion in the Islamic Republic but renouncing Islam (apostasy) is widely considered to be a form of blasphemy.