LAHORE: Stakeholders from the civil society, academia, media and minority communities on Tuesday gathered for a consultation to discuss the grim situation arising out of forced conversions.

The meeting was organised by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), and sought to build a consensus within the civil society and establish means of future engagement with relevant government bodies, particularly the Parliamentary Committee on Forced Conversions that was constituted on Nov 21.

It urged the Sindh government to investigate the case of Huma, a 14-year-old Christian girl who was abducted and allegedly forcibly converted to Islam last week in Karachi. Besides, they also discussed the case of Mehek Ram Lal, who was transported to Daharki to record her “statement” wherein she said she had converted of her own free will.

The notorious Mian Mithu, whose name has been synonymous with forced conversions in Sindh and who is also part of the ruling PTI, was also discussed. The participants demanded the government properly investigate his role in these crimes and questioned why minor Hindu girls fled to Bharchundi Shareef so frequently.

The participants included lawyer and Human Rights Watch Country Director Saroop Ijaz, former HRCP director Najam U Din, educationist and minority rights activist Kalyan Singh and activist Kulsoom Sadiq.

“Protecting the fundamental rights of the victims (mostly women and young girls) must include measures to protect them physically and psychologically by providing them legal representation, compensation, rehabilitation and restitution,” said Peter Jacob, executive director of the CSJ.

He briefed the meeting on the data collected by CSJ, detailing approximately 160 cases of forced conversions from 2013 to 2019, forced marriages and related crimes involving minority women and girls. He also presented a working paper documenting 16 cases where the formerly abducted and converted girls had sought judicial relief from the Hyderabad bench of Sindh High Court.

Analysis of these cases revealed the legal loopholes, procedural irregularities and socio-cultural factors contributing to impunity available to the perpetrators. These must be taken into consideration when the parliamentary committee and government begin formulating laws and policies against forced conversion in the country, the paper stated.

Saroop Ijaz said that the conference solicited feedback from over 50 civil society workers, rights activists and community leaders. These consultative sessions will entail sending actionable proposals and recommendations for the parliamentary committee in order to facilitate and support its work in the future.

Najam U Din said that while the government was making efforts to promote a soft image of Pakistan by opening Kartarpur Corridor and promoting religious tourism, criminals, who have long abused religion to cover up their crimes, are constantly engaged in forced conversions, adding that now was the time for the law enforcing bodies and the justice system to look into these cases seriously.

Since the victims did not have a proper law to address forced conversions, the perpetrators got away with the crime.

During the meeting, a documentary on the state of religious freedom in Pakistan, prepared by the CSJ, was also screened. The participants resolved that they will continue to engage in, facilitate, and support the work of the parliamentary committee vis-à-vis law- and policy-making on the issue of protection of minorities including developing safeguards against forced conversions and forced marriages of minority girls and women.

Published in Dawn, December 19th, 2019

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