–Ashrafi says PM Imran has ordered investigation into each case of forced conversion
–Bishop Marshall says girl child ultimate sufferer in terms of physical, mental and emotional trauma
LAHORE: The government has taken notice of the cases of forced conversions and marriages of underage girls belonging to the minority communities and will take stern action against the perpetrators of these crimes, Prime Minister’s Special Representative on Religious Harmony Allama Tahir Mehmood Ashrafi said on Monday.
Addressing a joint press conference at Saint Peter’s School with National Council of Churches of Pakistan (NCCP) President Bishop Azad Marshall, Ashrafi said that Prime Minister Imran Khan has ordered investigation on case to case basis of incidents of forced conversions of minor girls belonging to the minority communities, particularly Christian and Hindu.
He said that no person or group would be allowed to exploit minor children in the name of religion.
“We have found out that a majority of such cases are an outcome of sexual exploitation and have no relation with Islam. Our religion forbids forced conversions and all people using religion to cover their crimes will be brought to justice,” he said.
He added that the important issue had also been discussed at the platform of the Muttahida Ulema Board and all scholars were unanimous in their disapproval of forced conversions. “I have also taken this issue up with Federal Minister for Human Rights Shireen Mazari, Law Minister Farogh Naseem and Religious Affairs Minister Noorul Haq Qadri and we are committed to ensure implementation of the relevant laws in letter and spirit.
Ashrafi also said that the government was also working against the misuse of the blasphemy laws to ensure that no person uses the laws to settle personal agendas.
Addressing reporters, Bishop Azad Marshall said that the church leadership had been closely monitoring the cases of abduction and forced conversion of minor girls and decided to take concrete steps in this regard.
“The girl child is the ultimate sufferer in terms of the physical, mental and emotional trauma that results from her abduction and forced marriage,” Bishop Marshall said, adding that the cases of Christian teens, 13-year-old Arzoo Raja of Karachi and 14-year-old Maira Shahbaz of Faisalabad, were some of the incidents that have been highlighted in the national press, but there are many other cases that go unreported due to societal pressure and fear of reprisal from the accused.
He said that Christians and Hindus are the two major communities that are suffering from this issue but the federal and provincial governments are yet to take concrete measures to curb this crime despite the presence of relevant laws. “It has also been observed with concern that law enforcement agencies and other forums of justice are facilitating such crimes due to which this trend is increasing,” he added.
“Unfortunately, abduction and forcible conversion of a minor girl is accorded a degree of permanence and irreversibility through marriage to a Muslim adult without ascertaining the circumstances and intellectual, emotional and social maturity of the child while making such declarations of consent,” the church leader said. He added that it is often difficult to determine whether such declarations of consent are in fact un-coerced, or if they are the consequence of threats, psychological abuse and conditioning, and fear of social stigma and rebuke.
“We believe that Islam is a religion that does not compel people of other faiths to convert. Article 20 of the Constitution also guarantees every citizen the right to profess, practice and propagate his religion, therefore, it is the State’s obligation to protect its minorities from such crimes that are spreading fear and insecurity in our people,” he said.
Marshall said he had also decided to move the Supreme Court to identify and fix the lacunas in the existing laws to ensure the protection of the girl child.
“We also urge Islamic scholars and government officials to sit with us and develop a mechanism for judging instances of religious conversion of children,” he said.