A parliamentary committee on Wednesday rejected the anti-forced conversion bill after the Ministry of Religious Affairs opposed the proposed law while lawmakers from minority communities protested the decision.
The bill came under discussion during a meeting of the Parliamentary Committee to Protect Minorities from Forced Conversions, where Religious Affairs Minister Noorul Haq Qadri said the "environment is unfavourable" for formulating a law against forced conversions.
He warned that forming a law on forced conversions would deteriorate peace in the country and "create further problems for minorities". "They (the minorities) will be made more vulnerable," the minister said.
Stating that the provincial governments, the National Assembly speaker and the Prime Minister's Office may take other measures to end forced conversions, he reiterated that legislation on the matter could lead to a melee.
Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Ali Muhammad Khan said the issue of forced conversions had already been raised before the prime minister, who had formed a special parliamentary committee on the matter.
"We are serious about [addressing] the problem of forced conversions," he said. He added that the law on the subject, however, was to be formed to address the issue "and not for getting appreciation from an international organisation or a non-governmental organisation".
He further stated that legislation on the subject was being opposed as setting an age limit with regards to forced conversions "goes against Islam and the Constitution of Pakistan".
The minister informed the committee that Law Minister Farogh Naseem had called him to his office and cautioned him against legislating on the matter, terming the move "dangerous".
"He (Naseem) said to me that [being given] ministries is of little value as they come and go, but we should not go against Islam," Khan added.
Jamaat-i-Islami Senator Mushtaq Ahmed also opposed the bill, denying that the problem of forced conversions existed in Pakistan. "This bill is anti-Islam," he remarked.
Criticising the government for proposing the law in the first place, the senator said, "It is due to the incumbent government's wrong policies and neglect that not just Pakistan, but the entire Muslim world and minorities are also facing difficulties."
The opposition to the bill irked PTI MNA Lal Chand Malhi, who said the remarks by the ministers who had spoken earlier gave the impression that forced conversions were not a problem in Pakistan.
"You are cornering minorities and such decisions [rejecting the bill] will make life a living hell for minorities in this country," he said.
Malhi claimed that the bill had not been rejected by the Ministry of Religious Affairs or the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) but had been dismissed on the instructions of Mian Mithu. Mithu, the pir of Bharchundi Sharif, has been blamed for the alleged forced conversions of Hindu girls in rural Sindh.
In response to allegations by Malhi, Khan accused him of making false and political statements.
An angry Senator Ahmed added, "No matter what happens, we will not allow anyone to go against Islam."
Another committee member, Maulvi Faiz Ahmed, also said the bill was against Islam and Shariah. "And we will not allow any legislation in this country that is against Islam," he added.
This led to a protest by members from minority communities, who decried that young people from their communities were being kidnapped in broad daylight and forcibly converted to Islam, while also lamenting the fact that Muslim members had taken the stance that forced conversion was not a problem in Pakistan.
PTI lawmaker Ramesh Kumar said that while they were not opposing willful conversions, many Hindus were promised money and marriages in order to lure them into converting to Islam.
"And when they are not given what they are promised, they return home. This means that they did not convert of their own free will," he added.
He went on to say that opposing legislation against forced conversion indicated that the "government is worried about [the reaction by] elements involved" in the problem.
Clerics had expressed reservations over the bill in August, calling it a conspiracy and suggesting that the government should not fall into the trap of the West by taking it to parliament.
At a meeting, chaired by Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) Chairperson Dr Qibla Ayaz, they had reviewed the draft bill and objected to several clauses, including the minimum age of conversion.
A copy of the draft bill, which is available with Dawn, 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 he or she is residing.
The draft law highlights 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 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 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 his/her 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 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.