Islamic clerics and religious scholars have rejected the Human Rights Ministry’s proposed draft of the anti-forced conversion bill, raising objections to several clauses, including the minimum age of conversion, informed sources said.
Sources said that the religious scholars and clerics expressed their reservations on the draft legislation aimed at curbing forced conversion of minority children during a meeting held at the Ministry of Religious Affairs under the chair of Pir Noorul Haq Qadri on Monday.
Interestingly, the ministry invited only Muslim stakeholders to hold the in-camera meeting. Members of the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) or its chairman, Chela Ram, were not invited to the moot. The lone Muslim member of the NCM, Mufti Gulzar Naeemi, was invited in the capacity of a local cleric, sources said. They added that Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) Chairman Dr Qibla Ayaz, CII’s other officials and some local clerics were also invited to the meeting.
Although the agenda of and discussion at the meeting has not been made public, sources said that the meeting’s participants were informed that the draft of the “Prohibition of Forced Conversion Act, 2021” has been received from the Ministry of Human Rights.
“The copies of the draft were shared and discussions were held after everyone in the room went through the papers,” the sources added.
Reportedly, the clerics and religious scholars expressed serious reservations over the draft and objected to several clauses, including the minimum age of conversion. They said that the minimum age of 18 years for conversion was incorrect and that this age bracket was contrary to the draft domestic violence bill that was currently with the law ministry.
“When parents cannot even scold their children under the domestic violence bill, so can they stop their children from embracing Islam?” the sources quoted one of the clerics as saying. They added that the participants also objected to the procedure allowed under the draft law for conversion, saying “it is too cumbersome”.
According to the draft bill, any non-Muslim, who is not a child, and is able and willing to convert to another religion will apply for a conversion certificate from an additional sessions judge of the area where he or she is residing.
The draft law highlights that the application will have to include the name of a non-Muslim who is willing to change the religion, age and gender, CNIC number, details of parents, siblings, children and spouse (if any), current religion and the reason to convert to the new religion.
The draft law states that the additional sessions judge will set a date for interview within seven days of receipt of an application for conversion, and on the date the judge will ensure that the conversion is not under any duress and not due to any deceit or fraudulent misrepresentation.
The proposed law states that the “Judge may award a time period of 90 days to the non-Muslim to undertake a comparative study of the religions and return to the office of the Additional Sessions Judge”.
After satisfaction, the judge will the certificate of change of religion.
The proposed law also awards punishment between five to 10 years and a fine from Rs100,000 to Rs200,000 to any person who uses criminal force to convert a person to another religion.
While any person who is an abettor to a forced conversion will be liable to imprisonment from three to five years and a fine of Rs100,000.
It has been highlighted that the age of the person willing to convert his/her religion will be determined by either the child’s birth certificate, or school enrolment certificate, or NADRA B-Form.
“Only in the absence of such forms the child’s age may be determined on the basis of a medical examination,” the draft added.
The proposed law also states that the case of forced conversion will have be disposed of within 90 days by the Court, while appeal against a conviction or acquittal of an offence under this Act can be presented before the respective High Court within ten days from the date on which copy of the order passed by the Court of Session is supplied to the appellant.
Earlier, Federal Minister for Religious Affairs Pir Noorul Haq Qadri made it categorically clear that the government is opposed to a restriction on religious conversion before the age of 18 years.
“If someone aged 14 years wishes to convert to some other religion, they could not be stopped,” the minister commented during a meeting of the Senate parliamentary committee on minorities’ rights on July 14.
“There are several incidents where someone expresses the wish to convert their religion out of their own choice before the age of 18. There are several examples in Islam of religious conversion before 18,” Qadri was quoted as saying during the meeting. He added that if someone wished to change their religion before reaching age 18, it was their choice, and that “a Nikah [Islamic marriage] or marriage before 18 was another discussion.”
The minister said that a proposal for setting the minimum age limit for marriage had been sent to the Council of Islamic Ideology.
Speaking on the issue of forced conversion and underage marriages of minority girls during a gathering on National Minorities Day on Aug 11, Punjab Minister for Human Rights and Minorities Affairs Ejaz Alam Augustine said that his ministry has prepared a draft on the issue of forced conversions.
“Things become difficult when every case is dealt with as forced conversion. We don’t want to be barriers between faith. This is a very sensitive matter for these people. We can’t change the mindset. We only want to stop those who convert minority females for marriage. Besides lawmaking, we need judicial reform, changes in Sharia law and social awareness about this critical issue,” he said.