Catholic lawyer fights forced conversions in Pakistan

August 30, 2021


THE GROWING NUMBER OF INCIDENTS OF KIDNAPPING, forced conversion and forced marriage of teenage Christian girls in Pakistan have raised security concerns for the minority community. Every year, an estimated 1,000 young girls are abducted, most of them Christian, some Hindu. Catholic officials cite forced conversion as the biggest challenge for the Church in Pakistan. The majority of these cases involve Christian girls from Punjab province. The Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS)—an interdenominational organization combating Christian persecution in Pakistan—has recorded more than 20 cases of forced conversions this year. Akmal Bhatti, a Catholic lawyer and CLAAS official, told Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) about the challenges he faces:

“Just like Shahbaz Bhatti, the Catholic federal minister for minorities, I belong to Khushpur, known as “the little Rome of Pakistan” for being the biggest Catholic village in Pakistan. I worked closely with him as the provincial secretary general in Punjab for the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance, a party he founded in 2002. Bhatti was assassinated in March 2011, and now we carry his ideals to fight discriminatory laws.

“Sadly, there is no law against forced conversions or restriction on conversion before age18. Forced conversion is still not considered a crime in Pakistan. It is hard to console families who are saddened and in pain after sudden loss of their underage daughters. Meanwhile these pedophiles use religion as an excuse to hide adultery.   

“It started with Hindu daughters in the southern Sindh province. The courts themselves distribute conversion certificates and hand over the victims to their rapists. The defendants’ counsels deliberately evoke the religious sentiments of the judges. Conversion to Islam becomes the main argument. Merit and facts are sidelined. This is blatant injustice. But even the media tells a one-sided story.

“Last year, journalists in the Islamabad press club accused us of defaming their faith and the country when we condemned the forced conversions. They simply brush it off as love marriages. This August, a local newspaper censored our banner at an Islamabad rally on National Minorities Day. Our slogan, “Stop forced conversions of minor girls,” emblazoned on the banner, was not published.

“The situation is opposite when a Christian youth marries a Muslim girl. Police kidnaps family members of Christians who elope with Muslims. The law only protects newly converted Muslims. I have seen a judge calling a former Christian and advising him to stay firm in his new faith. The punishment for apostasy from Islam is death, he said. It was a soft threat, but judges are not supposed to have any bias based on religion or sex.

“Most cases of forced conversions are reported in communities where Christians and Muslim live together. Of course, forced conversion hampers social harmony as well. Both the victims’ families and their lawyers face death threats. I have to make special security arrangements while going to a hearing of such cases.  

“Yet, the Church can use its institutes and networks to counter this trend and support the victims. However, both Church and political leadership should be on the same page in addressing these issues. Some argue that bishops should avoid government committees and positions if they cannot speak openly on behalf of the Christian community. Instead, they could support young political leaders to become effective whistle blowers.”

—Kamran Chaudhry

SOURCE Aid to the Church in Need