Pakistan: Bill to Outlaw Forced Conversion Blocked After Fierce Opposition
Islamists deny practice takes place in the country; religious minorities say it’s common
[Islamabad] Pakistan’s Ministry of Religious Affairs has vetoed a proposed law to criminalize forcible conversion after threats to call for violent protests from Islamic clerics and scholars.
Noor-ul-Haque Qadri, federal minister of religious affairs and interfaith harmony, said in a statement on Saturday that “some clauses of the proposed bill, such as the bar on religious conversion for those under 18 years of age, a 90-day waiting period, and appearance before a judge are entirely against the rules of Sharia and in violation of the state constitution.”
The “proposed law in this form conflicts with Islamic law and basic human and constitutional rights,” he said.
“The draft bill had been returned to the Ministry of Human Rights with some reservations which were raised over the draft after wide-ranging discussion with leading clerics and on the recommendation of the Council of Islamic Ideology,” the minister continued.
Qadri added, however, that “forced conversion has no place in Islam.”
The Council of Islamic Ideology is a constitutional body responsible for giving legal advice on Islamic issues to the government and parliament, including whether legislation conflicts with Sharia (Islamic law).
However, the Peoples’ Commission for Minorities Rights (PCMR) has urged the Ministry of Religious Affairs to show sympathy toward minorities on the issue of forced conversion.
In a joint statement, Peter Jacob, chairman of PCMR, Justice (ret.) Kailashnath Kohli, attorney Ram Parkash, Kalpana Devi, Saroop Ijaz and Saqib Jillani expressed regret regarding the ministry’s position.
Lala Robin Daniel, chairman of the National Minorities Alliance of Pakistan, told The Media Line, “The bill should never have been forwarded to the Ministry of Religious Affairs.
“It was a matter of minority rights. The bill should have been sent to the cabinet for approval and from there it should have been taken up by the parliament,” Daniel said.
Lal Chand, a Hindu parliamentarian from the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, told The Media Line, “The decision of the Ministry of Religious Affairs is strange to us.”
“No one has the right to interfere with the religious rights of minorities,” Chand said. “We want Pakistan to develop in the light of the sayings of Mohammad Ali Jinnah [the country’s founder] that ensure equality and religious freedom in Pakistan.”
According to the draft bill, any non-Muslim adult who is able and willing to convert to another religion must apply for a conversion certificate from an additional sessions judge. The judge would be required to set a date for an interview within seven days of receipt of an application for conversion. The judge may ask the applicant to study comparative religions and is required to complete the process within 90 days of receipt of application.
The bill would also permit conversion only after the age of 18.
The proposed law would authorize punishment of between five and 10 years and a fine of $500 to $600 for a person who pressures or forces anybody to convert to another religion.
To finalize the proposed legislation, a high-level committee had been constituted at the federal level.
The committee includes senior officials from the Ministry of Human Rights and minority parliamentarians.
The initial draft of the Prohibition of Forced Conversion Act, 2021, was prepared by the Ministry of Human Rights and was forwarded to the Ministry of Religious Affairs for comment.
The Ministry of Religious Affairs held meetings and invited prominent Islamic clerics and scholars to discuss the proposed legislation.
No minority representative was invited to the initial meetings of this committee.
In response to objections from religious scholars, the Ministry of Religious Affairs sent the bill to the Council of Islamic Ideology, which rejected the bill on Saturday, saying there is no age limit for conversion under Islamic Sharia.
Dr. Qibla Ayaz, chairman of the Council of Islamic Ideology, said in a statement on Saturday that “the council reported the existence of some contradictory provisions in the draft bill on forcible conversion.
“The most important issue in this regard is that the condition of 18 years of age for conversion is un-Islamic. There is no age limit for conversion in Islam,” he said.
He further said that “according to Islam and the state constitution, forced conversion is not allowed in Pakistan.
“The proposed bill gives the wrong impression that forcible conversion is regularly taking place in Pakistan, which would be prevented by ratifying a law,” Ayaz claimed.
An Islamabad-based senior official told The Media Line on condition of anonymity that “due to the sensitivity of the issue, the bill draft was officially kept secret, but before its submission, the draft was leaked to some right-wing parliamentarians, who passed the text of the bill to the religious clerics. Therefore massive protests were signaled against the bill across the country.”
Liaqat Baloch, deputy chief of Jamaat-e-Islami, Pakistan’s leading religious political party, and a former member of the National Assembly, told The Media Line, “The proposed bill is against Islam and the Constitution of Pakistan.
“We will oppose this bill not only in parliament but also in the streets and neighborhoods across the country,” Baloch said.
Allama Zubair Ahmed Zaheer, head of the Islamic Democratic Alliance of Pakistan and of a hardliner Salafi Muslim group, the Central Party of Ahle Hadith, told The Media Line, “Any law which hinders conversion to Islam shall not be tolerated in the country.
“Minorities are not facing any problem in the country but if such legislation is enacted at the behest of certain secular lobbies then there would be massive protests across the country,” Zaheer added.
Javaid Qaiser, an Islamabad-based religious scholar, told The Media Line, “It is a wrong impression that the proposed law was a bill against forced conversion of religion. The bill was prohibiting voluntary conversion to Islam.
“Forced conversion of religion is neither allowed in Islam nor supported by any religious political party,” he said. “Therefore, while opposing the bill, the scholars proposed to refer it to the Council of Islamic Ideology to seek its opinion.”
But forced conversion is not a rare occurrence in Pakistan.
Unfortunately, the majority of the people in the country are unaware of this serious issue faced by the religious minorities in Pakistan.
Peter Jacob, executive director of the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) and chairperson of the Peoples’ Commission for Minorities Rights, told The Media Line, “At least 162 verified cases of forced conversion between 2013 and 2020 were used as a sample to study the trend.”
“The number of victims (girls and women) belonging to Hindu community (54.3%) was higher than among Christians (44.44%), while 0.62% each belonged to the Sikh and Kalash religions,” Jacob said.
“The CSJ study revealed that the highest incidence of alleged forced conversions (51.85%) was reported in Punjab [Province], 43.83% in Sindh [Province], 1.23% each was reported in the Federal [Islamabad Capital Territory] and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa [Province], while one case was reported in Balochistan Province,” he said.
Jacob continued that “according to the Pakistan Penal Code, forced marriages with a minor and non-Muslim woman shall be liable to a maximum 10-year and a minimum of a five-year jail term and a fine, but unfortunately this law has not been applied so far. It could be an effective deterrent if applied.
“Normally reports filed by the victim’s family rely on using Section 365 B of the Constitution, dealing with the offense of kidnapping, or compelling a woman for marriage,” he continued. “This section does not cover the complexity of the circumstances so therefore a proper law is needed that protects the victims of forced conversion,” he said.
“Therefore a denial of or resistance to safeguards against forced conversion goes against the basic idea of religious freedom,” Jacob said.
Attorney Saeedain Khan, a Rawalpindi-based High Court and Sharia law practitioner, told The Media Line, “In the Constitution of Pakistan, freedom of religion is guaranteed, forced conversion is strictly prohibited. All are free to practice their religion according to their faith and culture.”
“Under Article 20 of the Fundamental Rights in Pakistan’s Constitution, freedom of religion is completely safeguarded,” he continued.
“In summary, all non-Muslims in Pakistan have fully protected rights to enjoy religious freedom without being forced to be converted to any other religion,” Khan said.