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Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Forced conversions are an endemic evil

Today is Red Wednesday, when we remember those who suffer for their beliefs in different parts of the world. Christians are not alone in enduring such adversity but the evidence shows that they are, by far, the most numerous group and that much of this persecution takes place in majority Muslim countries.

Many years ago, my father moved from a Shia family background to the Christian faith. Although he endured some hostility from friends and family in what was then British India, he was free to make this transition. Such freedom no longer exists either in India or Pakistan where draconian anti-conversion laws and extremist vigilante groups are making conversion difficult, if not impossible.

I moved recently from the Anglican Church to the Ordinariate provided for Anglicans in the Catholic Church. Again, although I have lost friends and there have been difficulties, I am grateful that I live in a country where I could make this conversion.

Such free decisions are quite different from the forced conversions which it is my unhappy duty to write about today. This year the charity Aid to the Church in Need has published a new report highlighting the growing problem of Christian and other minority girls being abducted, forcibly converted to Islam and married to their abductors. From Pakistan to Egypt, Nigeria and Mozambique this has become an endemic evil.

In the background is the disparity in power relations between majority and minority communities in these countries. Religious minorities are often marginalised politically, poor and discriminated against, sometimes in law but usually socially. This provides the context for abductors to act with impunity since they know that disenfranchised communities, such as Christians and Hindus in Pakistan, or Yazidis and Christians in Iraq, are unlikely to be met with sympathy when they report cases of abduction, rape and forced conversion to the police.

Many of the cases in the report are of underage girls kidnapped on their way to or from school. Others were domestic workers in the abductors’ households.

Attempts to rectify the situation with changes to the law in these countries tend to be met with fierce resistance. In Pakistan, a bid to raise the minimum marriage age for women to 18 was greeted with fury by Islamists who said it contravenes Sharia law. A similar reaction prevented an attempt by one of the provincial assemblies to prescribe a minimum age for conversion to Islam.

A related feature is that if the girl declares that she is not a Muslim, she is then in danger of being accused of apostasy, punishable by death. Those who appear in court to declare that they have been coerced into conversion and marriage are faced with the danger of retaliation visited upon them and their family.

So what can we do to help these girls? One step is to add forced conversion and marriage to the UN list of crimes of violence against women. This will enable campaigners to put pressure on the governments to prevent abduction, forced conversion and marriage and to act against the perpetrators when this happens.

The British Government is involved in aid programmes, in countries like Pakistan, to enhance the participation of women in society. Such programmes should directly address violence against women and, specifically, abduction and forced marriage. Some governments, such as those in Nigeria and Pakistan, have taken steps to address this problem, but we must ensure this is not merely window dressing.

What is needed is a bill of rights which ensures equal treatment of all citizens, emancipation of religious minorities from crippling legislation that works against them and equality for women under the law, as well as legal aid and other assistance to help girls and young women through the judicial process. The importance of the community becoming involved in seeking redress also cannot be overstated as many victims find themselves isolated.

Finally, resources are needed for those who have experienced the trauma of abduction, rape, forced marriage and conversion so that they can escape their tormentors and be enabled to live full and fruitful lives, just as we in free countries are so fortunate to do.

Michael Nazir-Ali is a former bishop of Rochester and now belongs to the Ordinariate in the Catholic Church

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