Various clerics have opposed the Prohibition of Forced Conversion Bill, 2021, presented by the Federal Ministry of Human Rights. The Parliamentary Committee to Protect Minorities from Forced Conversion will review the objections next month.
The clerics, along with religious scholars, objected to several clauses of the bill, especially those relating to age and legal procedure for conversion. They said the clauses are inconsistent with sharia, and advised the government not to table the bill in the parliament.
This has only reinforced the impression that Muslim religious scholars are determined to rigidly interpret the constitutionally guaranteed right to religious freedom, through their own religious conviction, even though it is the judiciary’s domain.
Notably, the Jillani judgment (SMC No. 1/2014 etc.) reaffirmed that Article 20 of the constitution, which guarantees religious freedom to all citizens irrespective of their religious identities, must be interpreted in the light of the religious conviction that the person or community holds, and should not be construed to encroach upon the religious freedom of minorities. The judgment also stated that religious freedom must be understood as a right against forced conversions and imposition of beliefs.
Similarly, the Lahore High Court in the Pumy Muskan case declared that “a minor child, not being sui juris, lacks the legal capacity to change the religion on their own.” The Sindh High Court in the Arzoo Raja case declared that “a minor child cannot enter into a legally valid marriage under Child Marriage Restraint Act.”
Interestingly, the clerics brush aside the allegations of forced faith conversions, and claim that there is no evidence. They say all the converts, including minor girls, willfully change their religion only to marry Muslim men of their own choice. However, the men are usually found to be twice or thrice the girls’ age, and often have a wife and children.
These clerics seem to either be in a state of denial or completely unaware of the verdicts wherein the honourable courts have handed over several survivors of forced conversion to their parents. Prominent cases include that of Charlotte Javed, Myra Shahbaz, Farah Shaheen, Saima Javed, Narish Nisha, Pumy Muskan, Reno Kumari, Mehik Kumari, Reena Meghwar and Bachoo Ram.
The courts ordered to reunite underage converts with their families on the basis of their statements, which showed that spurious certificates of marriage and conversion were prepared after the victims had been threatened. Hence, forcible faith conversion is not a hoax, and continues unabated by use of religion as a shield in Pakistan, which Prime Minister Imran Khan once dubbed an un-Islamic practice.
The bill proposes 18 years as the legal minimum age for conversion and proposes a legal procedure in which an application is to be submitted, followed by an interview with the applicant. The conversion certificate is to be used after the judge is satisfied that the decision has not been made under any duress.
Clerics objected against the age bar saying there are examples of children converting to Islam in history. They are apprehensive about the proposed procedure making conversion to Islam difficult.
The clerics need to understand that the bill does not ban or discourage willful embracing of any religion. It only attempts to provide legal safeguards against the conversion of minors by force.
The clerics’ arguments are neither logical, nor legal, nor practical, but solely religious and emotional. Pakistan is a democratic, not a theocratic state and its constitution guarantees right to equality, non-discrimination and religious freedom.
The right to religious freedom guaranteed in international human rights instruments can be understood through the report presented by Asma Jahangir, then Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, to the United Nations General Assembly in 2005. She noted that “with regard to children, the choice of religion is restricted by the parents’ rights to determine their child’s religion up to an age where the child is capable of doing so on his/her own, in accordance with article 18, paragraph 4, of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”
In legal terms, the parents have a right to determine their children’s religion and education in conformity with their own religious conviction until the children are capable of taking responsibility for decisions affecting their lives, and have attained the legal and mental capacity to change religion with informed consent.
The religious scholars must avoid viewing any law to protect minority rights from the majoritarian lens, and should not interpret it as being against Islam. They should desist from imposing their own religious ideology on minorities.
The right not to be forced to convert is an absolute human right guaranteed in international human rights instruments, which Pakistan is bound to implement.
The practice of forced conversion is affecting Pakistan’s religious diversity, and tarnishing the country’s name. The onus is on the government to demonstrate its capacity and political will towards the protection of minority rights
It is the responsibility of the government to protect minorities at risk of being coerced to convert. The government should also ensure that complaints of forced conversions are promptly investigated, the perpetrators apprehended, and the victims provided access to a fair trial.
The practice of forced conversion is affecting Pakistan’s religious diversity, and tarnishing the country’s name. The onus is on the government to demonstrate its capacity and political will towards the protection of minority rights by passing a law to deter forced conversions.
The government must incorporate minority parliamentarians in the legislative process, since the religious minorities face the brunt of forced conversions. Such legal safeguards will contribute to improving the state of religious freedom in Pakistan.