Rejection of anti-forced conversion bill stirs anger

The parliamentary committee this week rejected the most anticipated draft bill ‘Prohibition of Forced Conversion Act 2021’, prepared by the Ministry of Human Rights, after the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony quoted the environment to be ‘unfavourable’ at the moment. The bill, which had cultivated hope among the minorities, was deemed as a saving grace to protect the minority girls and stop the chronic practice of forced conversion.

In a press release issued by Cecil & Iris Chaudhry Foundation (CICF), Michelle Chaudhry, the president of the organization stated, “In Pakistan forced conversion of non-Muslim underage girls is rampant; girls belonging to religious minority communities, Hindu and Christians in particular, are kidnapped and forcibly converted to Islam. They are then married off to their abductors who rape and often prostitute them. All this is being carried out in an environment of impunity. This has to stop, and it is up to the state to take urgent and necessary action.”

Eminent human rights activist Nabila Feroz Bhatti in her recent article titled Law: Conscience or convenience? explained that the proposed bill was drafted according to the state law. She wrote: The bill had been prepared in light of the recommendations of the parliamentary committee constituted in 2019 to protect minorities from forced conversions. It was shared with the Ministry of Religious Affairs in July 2021 and the ministry had already given its input to the committee. The finalised recommendations were sent to the human rights ministry. Hence, the objections by the religious affairs ministry and the need to review the bill again has raised questions.

Human rights and religious activists have expressed profound concern over the rejection of the bill. Human Rights Commission Pakistan (HRCP) condemned this decision by the ministry for its ‘indifference’ towards religious minorities living in the country. In their statement HRCP commented, “The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan stands in solidarity with lawmakers from religious minorities who have rightly called for a bill against forced conversions.”

The rejection of the bill has thrown a new challenge at the minorities. Director of Center for Social Justice (CSJ) Peter Jacob condemning this decision stated, “As far as CSJ and People’s Commission for Minorities Rights (PCMR) is concerned, we will continue to raise awareness and challenge the matter in the public domain. If the need be, we will take the matter to the court also for defining the role of the council of Islamic ideology, which in our opinion acted in violation of the mandate in this case. The Ministry of Religious Affairs has acted as a self-appointed defender of the majority religion rather than as a ministry for religious affairs and interfaith harmony. It goes against the prime minister as well since he set up a committee two years ago with a clear mandate of preventing forced conversion. So by rejecting this bill the committee has not only failed to fulfill its duty but have proved to be utterly incompetent in the task that was assigned to them.”

Adding to this Michelle Chaudhry emphasized, “We wow to fight this grave violation of human rights at every level. There is an immense need for effective legislation against the forced conversion of underage non-Muslim girls and there are no two ways about that. The state has to realize this, along with upholding its international obligations, and the guarantees that are enshrined within the constitution of Pakistan.”

In order to curb this menace that is destroying the lives of hundreds of innocent underage minority girls across Pakistan, a law that sets a minimum age for conversion and criminalizes abduction and coercion is essential. The bill, if passed, would criminalize forcible conversion of underage minority girls in Pakistan.