Various minority rights groups in Pakistan have announced new peaceful protests in different cities on November 13. The demonstration will protest the rejection of a bill to protect women and men from religious minorities from forced conversion.
The Parliamentary Commission on Forced Conversions rejected the bill prepared by the Ministry of Human Rights and called this bill "non-Islamic" last month, on October 13.
The first protest by religious minorities and civil society representatives was held at the Karachi Press Club a day later.
Efforts are on to revive the bill and to have it tabled in parliament.
"We must all be united to defend and promote the proposed bill to protect women of religious minorities from forced conversions. Not only do we want this proposal to become law, but we also want it to be implemented. Rejecting the bill that aims to stop forced conversions is against human rights. This refusal hurt our feelings, especially those of women belonging to religious minorities in Pakistan. It is the responsibility of the State to protect its citizens, especially women and children, in the midst of the dangers to their lives and their peace of mind", said Tabassum Yousaf, a Catholic lawyer from Karachi.
Ms. Yousaf was one of the leading participants in the Karachi Press Club Protest.
The burning issue
Media reports from Pakistan indicate that the issue of forced conversions to Islam has been a hot topic of discussion since 2020 when American magazine Forbes reported that around 1,000 Christian and Hindu women and girls were kidnapped and forced to convert and marry Muslim men in Pakistan each year.
"This estimate of the number of victims may be even higher as many cases remain unreported, often due to the limited financial means of the girls' families," the magazine said.
Pakistani Prime minister Imran Khan had also criticized forced conversions, calling them "un-Islamic."
In February this year, a parliamentary committee to protect minorities from forced conversions recommended that only a "mature person" (adult) may be allowed to change religion after appearing before an additional sessions judge.
This caused a stir in various sections of Pakistani society.
Facing criticism in the international media over the forced conversion of girls from minority religious communities into Islam, the Pakistan government circulated a draft anti-forced conversion bill, which was met with disapproval from Muslim clerics and religious scholars, reported South Asia Monitor in August.
The Ministry of Religious Affairs called a meeting to discuss the draft of the bill on August 24. The meeting, chaired by Minister for Religious Affairs Pir Noorul Haq Qadri, was attended by senior ministry officials, heads of the Interfaith Harmony Wing and Haj Wing in attendance. Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) Chairman Dr. Qibla Ayaz was among those present.
Members of the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) or its chairman, Chela Ram, were not invited. The lone Muslim member of the NCM, Mufti Gulzar Naeemi, was invited as a local cleric.
The Pakistani media outlet Dawn quoted an unnamed participant as saying that the meeting was informed that the draft of the Prohibition of Forced Conversion Act, 2021 had been received from the Ministry of Human Rights.
Main points of the proposed law
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 they are residing.
It stipulates 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.
The draft law states that the additional sessions judge will set a date for an 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 duress and not due to any deceit or fraudulent misrepresentation.
The proposed law 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 satisfaction, the judge will issue the certificate of change of religion.
The proposed law also awards punishment between five to 10 years and a fine from Rs100,000 to Rs200,000 (USD 575 - 1151 approximately) to any person who uses criminal force to convert a person to another religion.
While any 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.
It has been highlighted that the age of the person willing to convert their religion will be determined by either the child's birth certificate, or school enrolment certificate, or Nadra B-Form. "Only in the absence of such forms the child's age may be determined on the basis of a medical examination," the draft added.
The proposed law also states that the case of forced conversion will have to be disposed of within 90 days by the court, while an appeal against a conviction or acquittal of an offence under this Act can be presented before the respective high court within ten days from the date on which copy of the order passed by the Court of Session is supplied to the appellant.
Shabir Shafaqat, president of the Christian National Party, who led the protest at the Karachi Press Club against the rejection of the bill, says: "We are fighting for our fundamental rights, we appeal to the Prime Minister, the judiciary and to the Chief of the Pakistani Army to ensure the protection of our women from kidnapping for forced conversions and forced marriages."
He also noted that Christians and Hindus feel insecure because of the rapidly growing kidnappings due to forced marriages and forced conversions of teenagers belonging to religious minorities in Pakistan. State intervention is needed."