Pakistan’s federal and provincial governments must introduce, pass and enact comprehensive laws against forced conversions in conformity with international human rights standards without any further delay. This was demanded by the participants of a number of protest demonstrations under the aegis of the Voice for Justice (VFJ) held in various cities of Pakistan including; Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad, Sahiwal, Faisalabad, Vehari and Multan to mark international human rights day. At this juncture, the participants shouted slogans against violent extremism and religious persecution, and they expressed grave concerns on the dismal situation of religious freedom and minority rights in Pakistan and called upon the urgent attention of the government, state institutions, political parties, and religious groups to pay serious attention to the brunt that religious minorities face.
In a statement issued on the occasion of international human rights day, the chairperson of the Voice for Justice, Joseph Jansen said that the imposition of the religious ideology of the Muslims on Non-Muslims citizens while introducing laws and policies is a highly discriminatory act by the government. The hiding of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government behind Islamic values to prevent legislation against forced conversion, and brushing aside a pressing human rights concern as a non-issue, has damaged Pakistan’s reputation. He raised serious concerns over the non-consideration of the Prohibition of Forced Conversions Bill, 2021 for further deliberation and amendments by the parliamentary committee, ignoring the facts on the ground as well as the judgments given by honorable courts of Pakistan which have declared the practice of forced conversions against the right to religious freedom, and have ruled that minor children lack the legal capacity to enter into marriages and to change the religion on their own.
Asif Bastian, Sindh President of VFJ, said that 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. Therefore, the government needs to take the criminal inquiry/ proceedings to the logical end against the culprits, including the clerics involved in issuing the spurious certificates of conversions and found guilty by the courts.
Ashiknaz Khokhar, human rights activist, observed that the delay in enacting a law against forced conversions is the failure of the legislature, while the impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators against their crimes under the pretense of faith conversions and marriages is the failure of the law and justice system
Ilyas Samuel, spokesman of VFJ, lamented that the honourable courts mostly issue verdicts, relying on the Islamic traditions rather than the domestic laws, in favour of perpetrators who manipulate the legal procedures by presenting forged certificates of marriage and conversion stating the minor girls as an adult and self-dependent, before the court of law, and misuse the religion as a shield to avoid legal punishment against the criminal offenses involving rape, abduction, child and forced marriage, and forced conversions, they commit. He observed that the lack of legal action against the perpetrators emboldens them, and allows them to get away from prosecution and conviction for their criminal offenses, at the expense of human rights and rule of law.
Ashiknaz Khokhar, human rights activist, observed that the delay in enacting a law against forced conversions is the failure of the legislature, while the impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators against their crimes under the pretense of faith conversions and marriages is the failure of the law and justice system of the country. He noted that the lack of enforcement of existing domestic laws against rape, forgery, forced marriage in the cases involving allegations of forced conversions remains a key impediment in preventing such practices against minorities and in allowing the perpetrators to escape justice.
Mansoor Randhawa, politician and director of VFJ Islamabad, said that forced faith conversions are grave human rights abuses which violate the religious freedom guaranteed in the constitution of Pakistan and international human rights instruments. Therefore, 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.
Farooq Bashir, an advocate, said that the Federal Shariat Court has issued a ruling that setting a legal minimum marriageable age by a government in an Islamic state is not an un-Islamic act, which makes putting an end to the marriages of children under 18 years of age in Pakistan more likely to happen. He demanded that federal and provincial legislative assemblies ought to pass bills to amend the Child Marriage Restraint laws, and implement them effectively to ensure that the minimum age for marriage regardless of gender is set at 18 years across Pakistan, and the marriage with minor children is declared null and void.
Bishop Johnson Robert honorary Chairman said that a lack of legal safeguards and their implementation against child marriages and forced conversions has the result of placing female children from minority communities at higher risk of facing violence and abuse, and poses a serious threat to their right to education, health, work, and religious freedom. The adverse consequences of this, he noted, extend to the society at large.