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KARACHI: Civil society activists have urged the Sindh government to pass the protection of minorities’ bill in its present form without making any changes under pressure of religious scholars.

At a press conference held at the Karachi Press Club on Wednesday, a consortium of civil rights organisations including the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Women Action Forum, Aurat Foundation and Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum, among others, expressed disappointment at the government’s decision to review the bill after some religious scholars expressed reservations over the law, terming it unconstitutional and against Islam.

The bill proposed in 2015, as a private bill, by Nand Kumar Goklani of Pakistan Muslim League-Functional (PML-F) was unanimously passed by the Sindh Assembly in November. It was aimed at making forced conversion of one’s religion a punishable act.

Recently, Senior Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Nisar Ahmed Khuhro issued a statement indicating the assembly would review any clause that went against the constitution and Sharia.

Asad Iqbal Butt, provincial vice chairperson of the HRCP, said during the press conference that reservations of religious scholars were nothing but “arm-twisting tactics which they use whenever a progressive step is taken.”

He said the PPP should not bow to the “religious might and stand firm on its decision to pass the bill without a review. The bill is fine as it is.”

He pointed out the decision had been taken under pressure from religious scholars and said this needed to stop. Earlier, the decision on the prohibition of alcohol in the province was taken under pressure and in the past a religious group was isolated and called non-Muslim for their beliefs, he added.

Pakistan Hindu Council’s Mangla Sharma said the issue of passage of the law needed to be looked at from a human rights perspective and not a religious one.

Reading out WAF’s statement, the foundation’s member Naghma Iqtidar, said: “Despite PPP’s progressive manifesto and liberal political positions, the current Sindh government has dismally failed in protecting the rights of minorities.”

She said that after taking a courageous step forward to amend the Child Marriage Restraint Act and make 18 the legal age for marriage, the PPP must follow through with the bill.

“The recognition of the fact (through the bill) is in accordance with international law and treaties. It is now under threat because of pressure from the extremist lobby which is determined to undermine the rights of women as well as minorities,” she added.

HRCP’s Asad Butt questioned “why a woman is required to change her religion only when marrying a Muslim man? Why not change the religion to become someone’s daughter? And why is it that only underage girls feel the need to convert, why not young men?”

He said that the questions were important because most young women, who were converted, eventually disappeared from the public eye.

Saeed Baloch of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum and activist Illahi Bux raised similar questions and urged the PPP government not to bow to religious lobby as it did in the past.

The journalists at the press conference took the civil rights organisations to task and asked why it took them so long to support the government. Others termed their standpoint “unconstitutional and against religion.”

A journalist criticised the panellists for their “silence on atrocities faced by Muslims all over the world.”

Before long, the panellists decided to end the press conference as the shouting match between the journalists and speakers was growing louder.

Published in Dawn December 29th, 2016