A witness to the plight of Christians and other religious minorities talks to Aleteia, as the European Union considers suspending Pakistan's preferential trading status.
Each year, human rights observers report that as many as 1,000 mostly Christian and Hindu girls and young women in Pakistan are raped and subjected to forced conversions and marriages to Muslim men.
These crimes have helped earn Pakistan its ignominious designation as a “Country of Particular Concern” on the U.S. Department of State’s Religious Freedom Report. Representing only 2% of the population of Pakistan, Christians are often victims of the country’s harsh blasphemy laws and mob violence.
That number however, represents only about half of the actual number of victims, says Shaheed Mobeen, a Pakistani professor of philosophy at the Pontifical Urban University in Rome and an advocate for religious freedom in Pakistan.
Mobeen is a witness testifying at the International Religious Freedom Summit, held in Washington, DC, this week. A guest of the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, he is here to talk about the persecution of religious minorities in Muslim-majority Pakistan.
Aid to the Church in Need, in its support of persecuted Christians around the world, helps fund the legal defense of Christians accused of blasphemy, and aids in the rescue of Christian girls abducted and forcibly converted.
“The government of Pakistan doesn’t accept [the number of victims as] 1,000 a year, but in the last two years, what I have seen, and what volunteers, nuns and lawyers have found, is that there are about 2,000 forced conversions and marriages a year,” Mobeen told Aleteia. In addition to Christians, Hindu, Sikh, and Shia Muslim families are being victimized and forced into marriages with Muslim men.
Abducted by Muslim “uncles”
The perpetrators of these crimes against girls and young women, he said, are usually family friends.
“What happens is a Muslim man who appears to be a friend of the Christian family visits the family, they eat together, and they drink together. This man starts bringing some gifts for the children of the house. The parents think that he is just like part of the family, whereas he is already planning his own future 3rd, 4th, or 5th wife,” Mobeen explained.
“And he chooses the most beautiful minor girl between the ages of 10 and 14. Fascinated by the candies, all the nice dresses, all the make-up things, these almost-teenagers think at the beginning that its an uncle who is giving so many gifts.
“Then he sexually violates the girl, converts her to Islam, and marries the same girl. After two days when the parents are looking for her everywhere, they receive a letter: ‘Your daughter has accepted Islam, congratulations, she will be saved,’” Mobeen said.
While the minimum legal age for marriage in Pakistan ranges from 14 to 18 depending on the province, that restriction is ignored by the men who abduct these girls, and sometimes by the courts tasked with upholding the law.
In Sindh Province, for example, in the southeastern region of Pakistan, girls must be 18 to marry without the permission of their parents. When the parents of 14-year-old Huma Younus, a Catholic girl, went to court after their daughter was abducted, forcibly converted to Islam, and married off to a Muslim man, they discovered that the judicial system was not based on the laws on the books.
In his ruling, the judge declared that, despite the evidence that a 14-year-old girl had been illegally married without her parents’ permission, no crime had been committed. He said that the marriage was legal.
His reasoning: in accordance with Sharia law, since their daughter had already had her first menstrual period, she was of marriageable age.
The decision set off a firestorm of protests on social media, and was the subject of remarks on up on the floor of the UK Parliament, Mobeen said.
He told Aleteia that despite the many witnesses present, the court later denied that the judge ruled as he did.
“It became an issue, and three days later the same court issued a press release saying ‘all that is being said in social media is not true.’ But we are witnesses to confirm that that was said,” Mobeen said.
Blasphemy laws and the threat of international sanctions
According to reports from human rights observers, Christians, Hindus and other religious minorities continue to be victimized by mobs of Muslims who attack them because of alleged acts of blasphemy.
Under the Pakistani penal code, accusations of blasphemy can subject one to life imprisonment and the death penalty, although nobody has ever been executed, at least through the judicial system. For non-Muslims accused of blasphemy, according to Aid to the Church in Need’s Religious Freedom Report, “accusations often result in lynching, mob attacks on entire neighborhoods, and extrajudicial killings.” Those who survive are brought to jail, where they remain, having been denied bail because they are believed to be safer in jail. In some cases, those who are incarcerated die under suspicious circumstances, Mobeed said.
The world turned its eyes to Pakistan when human rights activists, including Aid to the Church in Need, brought attention to the case of Asia Bibi, the Pakistani woman sentenced to death after being convicted of blasphemy charges. Her 2018 acquittal due to “insufficient evidence” was followed by a decrease in charges of blasphemy. The Center for Social Justice (CSJ) reported authorities charged and imprisoned 84 individuals in 2021 for blasphemy, a decrease from the 199 brought in on blasphemy charges in 2020.
“After the release of Asia Bibi, Pakistan realized the world is looking at us and there are going to be economic sanctions on us if we don’t respect and give space for religious freedom and human rights,” Mobeen said.
In the United States, while Pakistan remains on the list of “countries of particular concern,” the U.S. State Department has issued a waiver so sanctions won’t be brought against Pakistan, due to “the national interests of the United States.”
Meanwhile, Pakistan is now in danger of losing its GSP+ status with the European Union because of its persecution of religious minorities. The country benefits from a preferential status that allows it to enjoy zero duties on 66% of its exports. In April several Members of the European Parliament called for a debate on human rights abuses in Pakistan, with a focus on discrimination against religious minorities. In its resolution the group demanded that Pakistan protect religious freedom or risk losing aid from the European countries.
“Pakistan is trying to do its best to show to the international community that there is religious freedom in Pakistan, that they are respecting human rights in Pakistan, but in the case of religious minorities, religious freedom is not even discussed. We have a department of religious affairs called Interfaith Harmony and they are not doing anything in that direction and they don’t even know what interfaith dialogue means,” he said.
And despite a decrease in the number of people jailed for blasphemy, Mobeen said that there are “many Asia Bibis in Pakistan in prison.”
“They need to be saved, the many boys and girls, school teachers who are in jail, accused of blasphemy, while there is no proof of having committed blasphemy. They are going to stay for years and years in jail,” he said.
Criminals hiding behind Sharia law
According to Mobeen, the rapes, forced conversions and marriages, and mob violence have little to do with religion.
“Religion does not have anything to do with that kind of lustful attitude of these men,” accused of abducting young girls and forcing them to marry them, he said.
“Those vicious and lustful men use religious law to protect themselves and safeguard themselves, just like with the blasphemy laws.” Mobeen believes that charges of blasphemy are often made by Muslims who are jealous of how Christians and Hindus are faring economically.
“Islam does not invite you to rape a girl, Islam does not teach you to accuse someone falsely of blasphemy, but with this situation, it is legally possible for a Muslim criminal to hide himself behind these Islamic laws,” he explained.
Hope rests on international pressure
“Christians are finding it difficult to survive in everyday life,” Mobeen stressed.
His hope is that the United States and other nations will press for Pakistan to provide protection for religious minorities.
“If they say they are protecting religious minorities, it is not true. If it appears they are doing something, it’s not enough, we need to be protected better,” Mobeen said.
In addition, he believes the Pakistani government should be encouraged to provide economic assistance to minority small businessmen and educational scholarships to religious minorities.
Because many Christian parents refuse to let their daughters attend state schools for fear they will be abducted, the literacy rate for girls is only about 9%, Mobbed estimates. Home-schooling is not an option as many of the parents are themselves illiterate. And Christian schools are unaffordable for many. University scholarships, he says, are denied non-Muslims, blocking off the main path to economic well-being.
But no amount of economic or educational assistance will help without the physical protection of religious minorities, Mobbed said.
“We are citizens of Pakistan. We aren’t aliens. We need protections as any other citizens of Pakistan do,” he said.
The photo above is of Arzoo Raja, who at age 13, was raped, abducted and forced to convert to Islam and marry an older Muslim man. With the help of Aid to the Church in Need she was rescued and returned to her family.