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The Forced Conversion of Christians Becoming Disgracefully Common in Pakistan
William Stark, Regional Manager for South Asia
International Christian Concern
Forced conversion in Pakistan is becoming more of an issue of concern for the Christian community. In April, stories of Christians being affected by the issue of forced conversion reared its ugly head on multiple occasions and reminded us how it is an issue that is a concern for every member of Pakistan's already extremely persecuted Christian community. Reports of hundreds of Christian women forcefully converted to Islam every year, a Christian man being murdered for refusing to convert to Islam, and a Christian family being forced to flee their home for their children's safety shows how widespread and common forced conversion has become in Pakistan.
Wrong Religion, Wrong Gender
In a report published in April, the Movement for Solidarity and Peace (MSP) revealed that as many as 700 Christian women between the ages of 12 and 25 are forcefully converted to Islam every year in Pakistan. Christian women are among Pakistan's most vulnerable people because they are considered by many in Pakistan's Muslim majority population to be both the wrong religion and the wrong gender.
The figures presented in the report published by the MSP were taken from major newspaper sources and NGOs working on the issue already. The actual number of Christian women being forcefully converted to Islam every year could, in reality, be much higher than the numbers reported by the MSP. Many cases go unreported because of threats against the victims and their families.
Forced conversion of Christian women is both well organized and well established. These women are often abducted from their families, converted to Islam, married to a Muslim man, and raped - all by force.
Culprits coerce their captives to sign documents stating that they have embraced Islam by their own free will and then force them into changing their names to a traditionally Muslim name. Often, the forced marriage and rape are used as a tool to trap these women. Pakistan is a very traditional society and good marriages are one of the few ways in which Christian women are able to provide for themselves. The shame associated with being a rape victim often destroys a Christian woman's potential to find a good marriage.
Because of threats against their own safety or the safety of their families, women being abducted and forcefully converted to Islam often do not report these incidents of abuse. Even when these cases are reported to police, the victims find both the police and justice system stacked against them.
Police often tell victims that they are better off being Muslims in Pakistan and refuse to register complaints. Even if the complaint is actually registered and the matter is brought to court, injustice is often the only result. Throughout court proceedings, the Christian women are forced to stay in the custody of their abductor instead of being returned to their families or an independent third party. This forces many women to give statements that they have converted by their own free will and that they are happily married to their abductors.
Killed for Refusing Islam
Even though Christian women make up the vast majority of forced conversion cases in Pakistan, they are by no means the only Christians being victimized. Christian men are often pressured by Muslim co-workers and neighbors into converting to Islam. In some cases, refusing to convert to Islam can lead to false blasphemy accusations and, in extreme cases, murder. When confronted with the choice to covert or die, many Christian men are not as brave as Sunny Masih, a Christian man willing to stand firm in his Christian faith.
On April 16, Sunny Masih, a Christian cleaner at a branch of Bank Islami in Lahore Pakistan was allegedly shot and killed by his Muslim co-worker after refusing to convert to Islam. According to official reports, the Muslim co-worker informed police that Masih had shot himself with the co-workers shotgun after the co-worker left it unattended while using the toilet.
Masih's co-worker and security guard for the bank, Omar Farooq, told police that Masih had looked depressed when he had arrived at the bank and had shot himself when Farooq left his gun unattended. In an interview with Morning Star News, Masih's father refutes these claims by Farooq and asserts the issue of forced conversion was at the heart of his son's death.
"On April 15, my son told me that Farooq had mocked his Christian faith and has asked him to 'embrace' Islam," Masih's father told Morning Star News. "He told my son, 'You are a good-looking boy, and I don't like to see you sweeping the floors and cleaning the washrooms. If you embrace Islam, I'll connect you with people who will take good care of you, provide you with a decent job and even get you married into a wealthy Muslim family."
Masih responded to this invitation by saying that he was happy with his Christian faith and asked Farooq to stop asking him to convert to Islam. "My son told me that when he snubbed Farooq, the guard had threatened him that he would have to face the consequences for refusing the Dawaat [an invitation to accept Islam]," Masih father told Morning Star News. The next day, Masih was killed with Farooq's gun.
Initially, local police maintained that evidence supported Masih's death as a suicide and refused to register the case for investigation even after Masih's father told them about the forced conversion issue. It wasn't until the local Christian community staged a protest at the police station that the police registered the case and brought Farooq in for questioning.
Christian Children Faced with Forced Conversion
To show how widespread the issue of forced conversion is in Pakistan, ICC talked to one Christian family that was forced into hiding to protect two of their children from being forcefully converted to Islam. Sarah, age 12, and her sister Nadia, age eight, were blessed with outstanding singing voices and would often lead worship at church. Eventually, these two Christian girls became famous in their community for their voices.
At school, the two girls were selected to lead daily morning assemblies. The girls led other students, mostly Muslim, in singing Pakistan's national anthem and reciting verses from the Quran. The girl's parents told ICC that their daughters had been leading these morning assemblies for years and became well known to the other parents in the school.
"In October 2013, we sensed that our girls were being trapped and forced to convert to Islam by the school administration and other religious fundamentalists connected to the school," the girls' mother told ICC. "When some of the more fundamental Muslim families came to know about the religious background of Sarah and Nadia, they rushed to the school administration claiming the girls were no longer Christians. Their reasoning was that because the girls had been reciting verses of the Quran, they had become Muslims and had to be taken to live in the custody of a Muslim family."
"For about two months, our entire family was under pressure," the girls' father told ICC."We received threats of being killed or Muslims kidnapping our lovely daughters. We were under constant pressure from clerics to convert our girls to Islam."
Things got so bad that the family decided to take drastic action. Recently, in the middle of the night, the Christian family packed up as many of their possessions as they could carry and fled to a larger city in Pakistan where they believe they can stay hidden.
Forced conversion is second only to the abuse of Pakistan's controversial blasphemy laws in issues negatively affecting the dwindling Christian community of Pakistan. Touching Christians from all walks of life, forced conversion and the impunity the perpetrators of this abuse enjoy in Pakistan has become disgracefully common. Without significant change, Pakistan's Christian community will continue to live in a state of constant fear and look for any and all opportunities to escape one of the most religiously intolerant countries on earth.
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