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Parliamentary Panel Rejects Bill Against Forced Conversions

by Newsweek Pakistan

Aamir Qureshi—AFP

Minority lawmakers protest decision, stressing this move risks making life a ‘living hell’ for non-Muslims in Pakistan

The Parliamentary Committee to Protect Minorities from Forced Conversions on Wednesday rejected the government’s anti-forced conversions bill after the Ministry of Religious Affairs opposed it on the basis that it will “create further problems for minorities.”

During the proceedings, Religious Affairs Minister Noorul Haq Qadri said the prevailing environment was “unfavorable” for formulating a law against forced conversions, claiming it would deteriorate peace and stability and “create further problems for minorities.” Doubling down on this claim, he alleged that the bill would actually make minorities “more vulnerable” rather than protecting them.

The minister said that the provincial governments, National Assembly speaker and the Prime Minister’s Office could take other measures to end forced conversions, but passing the legislation could result in unrest. Similarly, Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Ali Muhammad Khan claimed the law’s clauses setting an age limit with regards to conversions “goes against Islam and the Constitution of Pakistan.” He claimed the government was “serious” about addressing forced conversions, but any law against it should not be framed in a way designed simply to “get appreciation from an international organization or a non-governmental organization.”

Khan went on to claim before the committee that Law Minister Farogh Naseem had cautioned him against allowing the legislation to proceed, as it was “dangerous” and no laws should be passed that “go against Islam.”

Another member of the committee, Jamaat-i-Islami Senator Mushtaq Ahmed, also opposed the bill. Denying that there was any issue of forced conversions in Pakistan—a patently false assertion—he also described the bill as “anti-Islam.”

Ahmed took special aim at the government for proposing the law in the first place, alleging that the incumbent government’s flawed policies had resulted in minorities and Muslims globally facing peril.

Living hell

The PTI-led government’s opposition to its own legislation provoked outrage from its minority lawmakers, with PTI MNA Lal Chand Malhi saying the ministers’ statements suggested they did not believe forced conversions were a problem in Pakistan. “You are cornering minorities and such decisions [rejecting bill] will make life a living hell for minorities in this country,” he emphasized.

The lawmaker alleged that the bill had not been rejected by either the Ministry of Religious Affairs or the Council of Islamic Ideology, but rather had been pushed aside on the instructions of Mian Mithu, a cleric accused of facilitating forced conversions of Hindu girls in rural Sindh.

Ali Muhammad Khan, in response, accused Malhi of making false and political statements. Another committee member, Maulvi Faiz Ahmed, said that it would not allow “any legislation in this country that is against Islam.”

Minority members of the committee protested the dismissals, stressing that their communities’ youth were being kidnapped in broad daylight and forcibly converted to Islam. PTI lawmaker Ramesh Kumar said that minorities did not oppose willful conversions, but many Hindus were promised money and marriages if they agreed to convert 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 stressed, adding that the opposition to the bill suggested the government was more concerned about the reaction from the perpetrators of such activities than the victims.

The Prohibition of Forced Religious Conversion Act, 2019 was drafted by the Ministry of Human Rights under the leadership of Minister Shireen Mazari. Long-pending, the bill hit a wall in August, when clerics expressed reservations over it, terming it a conspiracy against Islam. Despite earlier claiming that forced conversions are ‘un-Islamic,’ Prime Minister Imran Khan last month met clerics in Karachi and assured them the bill would “never” pass so long as his government was in power.

Under the proposed bill, any adult non-Muslim willing to convert their religion would need to apply for a conversion certificate from an additional sessions judge of the area where they are residing. The application to secure the certificate requires the individual to submit their reasons for conversion, adding that an additional sessions judge would meet them and ensure the conversion was not motivated by deceit or fraudulent misrepresentation.

In case of any confusion, the judge might allow 90 days for the individual concerned to undertake a comparative study of religions, and issue the conversion certificate once they have been satisfied.

The proposed law has set five-to-10 years’ imprisonment, as well as fines ranging from Rs. 100,000 to Rs. 200,000 for any person who uses criminal force to convert a person to another religion. Any facilitator of forced conversion could face three to five years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to Rs. 100,000.

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