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Crisis of Forced Marriages, Faith and Freedom Among Pakistan’s Minorities

In the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, minority communities live under a cloud of fear, particularly when it comes to safeguarding their faith. Each year, it’s reported that hundreds of young girls from Christian and Hindu backgrounds are forcibly converted to Islam, with many also being married off. This trend is symptomatic of the growing radicalization within the country, which significantly exacerbates the difficulties faced by non-Muslim Pakistanis, leaving them with scant protection against acts of violence.

The pattern of these conversions, often forceful and targeting minors, has sown deep unease among the Hindu and Christian populations. These communities represent a small fraction of Pakistan’s sprawling population of over 200 million. This pervasive fear is part of a larger narrative of displacement and identity crisis that has persisted since the partition of the Indian subcontinent over 70 years ago, prompting some Hindus and Christians to reconsider their futures in Pakistan.

Pakistan’s foundation in 1947 was marked by its founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s vision of a country where religious minorities could freely practice their faiths. However, the contemporary reality sees Pakistan as an Islamic state, where hardline religious factions hold significant sway, and minorities find little room to voice their concerns. Amidst this, influential Islamic clerics and organizations actively seek to convert individuals to Islam, compelling some Hindus to migrate within Pakistan or even leave for India, though Christians face starkly limited options, often finding little welcome even within other Christian-majority countries.

The situation has been exacerbated by strained India-Pakistan relations, with Hindus often facing discrimination in Pakistan. Incidents of Hindu girls being abducted and forcibly converted to Islam in regions like Sindh have been reported. A Daily Express article highlighted that around 180 Christians were converted to Islam in just the first three weeks of 2019 alone.

Recent years have seen a disturbing rise in forced conversions, particularly affecting minor Christian girls. Notable cases include 14-year-old Arzoo Raja from Karachi, who was abducted and forcibly married to a 44-year-old Muslim man, and 13-year-old Farah Shaheen, who faced a similar fate. Despite such actions being illegal under Pakistani law, certain Islamic institutions have sanctioned these marriages.

Human rights defender Farrukh Saif has been vocal about the systematic abduction of young Christian and Hindu girls, who are then coerced into converting to Islam and marrying Muslim men. These activities often have the backing of powerful religious seminaries, shrines, and clerics, alongside political figures, who defend the unions by claiming the girls willingly chose to elope, convert, and marry.

This concerning trend not only highlights the precarious position of religious minorities in Pakistan but also calls for urgent international attention and action to protect these vulnerable communities from forced conversions and marriages.

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