ISLAMABAD: United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in its Annual Report 2016 called upon US administration to press Pakistan for the repeal of the blasphemy law and the rescinding of anti-Qadiani provisions of law.
The report issued months back, interestingly had also pointed out the issue of “forced conversions” of below 18 girls in Pakistan. In a strange coincidence, the Sindh Assembly recently passed a controversial law barring even conversion by choice to anyone below the age of 18 years.
However, following serious objections raised by religious sections of the country for barring even those below 18 who want to convert to Islam by their free will, the PPP leadership has decided to amend the controversial parts of the said legislation.
The religious sections of the society pointed out that Islam does not permit forced conversion and that it could be treated as a crime. However, barring below 18 years old from by choice conversion is un-Islamic.
The USCIRF, which in another report had admitted to have worked for change in school textbook syllabus in Pakistan, in its Annual Report 2016 said, “Forced conversion of Christian and Hindu girls and young women into Islam and forced marriage remains a systemic problem.”
It added, “In October 2014, the Pakistan-based Aurat Foundation reported that around 1,000 girls, many under the age of 18, are forcibly converted to Islam each year, mostly through forced marriages or bonded labor. According to the report, public pressure on the police often leads to inadequate or biased investigations in these cases and the girls and their families face intimidation to say they converted willingly…..”
It added that in February 2016, Sindh province passed a law to allow the Hindu community to officially register their marriages. “The law is also retroactive, allowing previously married couples to register. Reportedly, the National Assembly is considering a bill that would pertain to all Hindu marriages throughout the country. Christian marriages are recognized through the Marriage Act of 1872.”
Regarding blasphemy law and while discussing constitutional provisions and relevant laws which declare Qadianis as “non-Muslims”, the report recommended to the US administration, “Call for the repeal of the blasphemy law and the rescinding of anti-Ahmadiyya provisions of law; until those steps can be accomplished, urge the Pakistani government to reform the blasphemy law by making blasphemy a bailable offense and/or by adding penalties for false accusations or enforcing such penalties found elsewhere in the penal code.”
The Report also recommended the US administration to designate Pakistan as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) state for “engaging in and tolerating systematic, ongoing, and egregious violation of religion or belief.
A country designated by US as CPC is considered guilty of particularly severe violations of religious freedom under the International Religious Freedom Act.
The report also recommend to the US administration: Press the Pakistani government to implement its Supreme Court’s decision to create a special police force to protect religious groups from violence and actively prosecute perpetrators, both individuals involved in mob attacks and members of militant groups; Recognize the unique governmental offices focusing on religious tolerance at the federal and provincial levels by including discussions on religious freedom in US-Pakistan dialogues or by creating a special track of bilateral engagement about government efforts to promote interfaith harmony; Work with international partners to raise religious freedom concerns with Pakistani officials in Islamabad and in multilateral settings, and to encourage the Pakistani government to invite the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief for a country visit; Encourage national textbook and curricula standards that actively promote tolerance towards members of all religions, both in government schools and the madrassa system overseen by the religious affairs ministry; Encourage the government of Pakistan to launch a public information campaign about the historic role played by religious minorities in the country, their contributions to Pakistani society, and their equal rights and protections; either in parallel or independently, use the tools of US public diplomacy to highlight similar themes; Urge the Pakistani government and provincial governments to review all cases of individuals charged with blasphemy in order to release those subjected to abusive charges, as is underway in Punjab, while still calling for the unconditional release and pardoning of all individuals sentenced to prison for blasphemy or for violating anti-Ahmadiyya laws; Work with federal and provincial parliamentarians to support the passage of marriage bills recognizing Hindu and Christian marriages; Ensure that a portion of US security assistance is used to help police implement an effective plan for dedicated protection for religious minority communities and their places of worship; and, provide USAID capacity-building funding to the provincial Ministries of Minority Affairs, and work with Pakistan’s government and minority religious communities to help them reach agreement on measures to ensure their rights and security in the country.