Pakistan Reader# 190, 31 August 2021
Apprehensions expressed by clerics and religious scholars towards the proposed anti-forced conversion bill conveys a larger problem in Pakistan: the refusal to recognise ‘forced conversions’ as an issueAbigail Miriam Fernandez
On 26 August, clerics belonging to all the four mainstream schools of thought - Shia, Barelvi, Deobandi and Ahle Hadis rejected the draft Anti-Forced Conversion Bill. During a meeting which was chaired by Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) Chairman Dr Qibla Ayaz, the bill was reviewed and termed as a conspiracy. The participants suggested that the government should not fall into the trap of the West by taking the draft bill to the Parliament. Further, they unanimously rejected the title of the draft bill - Anti Forced Conversion. Additionally, they criticised the Ministry of Human Rights for not sharing with them the report of Senator Anwaarul Haq Kakar who was previously the chairman of the Parliamentary Committee to Protect Minorities from Forced Conversions.
Previously, on 23 August, in a meeting called on by the Ministry of Religious Affairs to discuss the draft of the anti-forced conversion bill, clerics and religious scholars expressed serious reservations over the bill and warned the ministry that it cannot be implemented in its current shape. During the meeting, they expressed serious reservations and objected to several clauses, including the minimum age of conversion. It was noted that the minimum age of 18 years for conversion was incorrect, highlighting that this age bracket was contrary to the draft domestic violence bill that was currently with the law ministry. Additionally, they also stated that the procedure allowed under the draft law for conversion was too cumbersome.
What is the “Prohibition of Forced Conversion Act, 2021” ?
According to Dawn, who had received a copy of the draft bill, shows that any non-Muslim, who is not a child, and is able and willing to convert to another religion will apply for a conversion certificate from an additional sessions judge of the area where he or she is residing. The draft law highlights that the application will have to include the name of a non-Muslim who is willing to change the religion, age and gender, CNIC number, details of parents, siblings, children and spouse (if any), current religion and the reason to convert to the new religion.
It states that the additional sessions judge will set a date for interview within seven days of receipt of an application for conversion, and on the date, the judge will ensure that the conversion is not under any cohesion and not due to any deceit or fraudulent misrepresentation. The draft bill states that the judge “may award a time period of 90 days to the non-Muslim to undertake a comparative study of the religions and return to the office of the Additional Sessions Judge” after which the judge may grant the certificate of change of religion after a detailed study.
Additionally, it awards punishment between five to 10 years and a fine from Rs100,000 to Rs200,000 to any person who uses criminal force to convert a person to another religion and for a person who is an abettor to a forced conversion will be liable to imprisonment from three to five years and a fine of Rs100,000.
The issue of Forced Conversions in Pakistan
Forced conversions have become a frequent phenomenon in Pakistan. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) as many as 31 cases of forced conversions have been reported countrywide in 2020. The main victims of this practice are the minorities, where often the issue goes unchecked because the perpetrators are from the majority population and thus can access power more easily. The issue is particularly rampant in Sindh, where estimates show that over 1,000 girls from minority communities most of who are also under the legal marriageable age are forcibly converted to Islam every year in the country while the authorities remain hesitant to take action as the perpetrators often have connections in high places.
Thus, in order to protect religious minorities from forced conversion there requires some amount of legislation. However, not only the clerics but even officials declared that there was no forced conversion in Pakistan and most of the cases were related to “love affairs between individuals.” Thus, dismissing the very existence of the issue. As a result of this mindset and opposition, both the federal and provincial governments have been hesitant to debate or vote on a bill that seeks to outlaw the forced conversions of minorities. However, with Pakistan’s lawmakers realising the seriousness of the fact that until a legislation is enacted on conversions and strictly implemented, putting an end to the issue of forced conversion will only be more challenging.
Kalbe Ali, “Clerics express reservations over draft of anti-forced conversion bill,” Dawn, 25 August 2021
Kalbe Ali, “Clerics reject proposed anti-forced conversion law,” Dawn, 27 August 2021
“Conversion law,” The News International, 27 August 2021
“Against their will,” Dawn, 2 August 2021
Kalbe Ali, “Minorities commission finalises draft law against forced conversion,” Dawn, 22 October 2020
Ebad Ahmed, “Law: Converted into paralysis,” Dawn, 4 July 2021
“Forced Conversions and Marriages in Pakistan,” Pakistan Reader, 16 June 2020
Mohammad Nafees, “Protecting Pakistan’s ‘other’ daughters,” Dawn, 27 December 2020
Kalbe Ali, “Conversions of Hindu girls in Sindh cannot be considered forced: senator” Dawn, 20 October 2020
Hassan Niazi, “Bill against forced conversion,” The Express Tribune, 15 October 2019