London: Clerics and religious scholars have expressed serious reservations over the draft of the anti-forced conversion bill.
At a meeting called by the Ministry of Religious Affairs they/clerics warned the ministry it cannot be implemented as it stands.
Only Muslim stakeholders were invited to the meeting held in-camera.
Members of the National Commission for Minorities were not invited. But the lone Muslim member of the NCM, Mufti Gulzar Naeemi, was invited in the capacity of a local cleric.
Minister for Religious Affairs Pir Noorul Haq Qadri chaired the meeting.
While the meeting agenda has not been made public, one participant reportedly confirmed that the Prohibition of Forced Conversion Act, 2021 had been received from the Ministry of Human Rights.
In the meeting the clerics and scholars expressed reservations over the bill and objected to several clauses, including the minimum age of conversion.
They noted that the minimum age of 18 years for conversion was incorrect, and contrary to the draft domestic violence bill.
While reportedly the copy of the draft bill suggests that any non-Muslim, who is not a child, and is able and willing to convert to another religion can apply for a conversion certificate from an additional sessions judge.
The draft law highlights that the application will have to include the name of a non-Muslim who is willing to change the religion, their age and gender, CNIC number, details of parents, siblings, children and spouse (if any), current religion and the reason for conversion.
The draft law states that the additional sessions judge will set a date for interview within seven days of receipt of an application.
The proposed law also recommends a sentence five to 10 years and a fine from Rs100,000 to Rs200,000 to anyone who uses criminal force to convert a person to another religion.
Nasir Saeed, Director of CLAAS-UK, criticised the opposition from Muslim groups and individuals over the legal age limit for conversion to Islam.
He said: “It is beyond my understanding. The legal age limit is set in many other areas of life - the marriage age is set at 16 in Punjab, and 18 in Sindh. Voting age is 18 and to be a member of parliament you cannot be younger than 25-years-old, then why not for converting to Islam?
He said that in more than half the countries around the world, the legal age of maturity is 18. It is considered that girls often lack the ability to make independent health choices before the age of 18.
Mr Saeed said that for a girl who is a future mother and who takes the responsibility to look after the family, maturity is very important for her, whether she is getting married or converting to Islam.
He added: “Conversion to any religion is everyone’s right but not forcefully and not before the age of 18, it must be criminalised.
“According to the reports I have studied, the majority of girls who have allegedly been converted to Islam by their kidnapers are 12 to 14 years of age and 99% are kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam.
“In the cases I have studied, girls were first converted to Islam and then forced to marry on the same day. This is all to escape from legal action and to give the cover of religion to the crime.
“Police turn a blind eye to these crimes and courts are giving protection under the cover of religion (Islam), but parents and minority communities of Pakistan are crying for justice and to stop this practice. They demand a minimum age of 18 be set for conversion to Islam. Many human rights organisations, and even politicians around the world, have raised their concern of this malpractice and have questioned the government of Pakistan over its lack of action.”
“This is a very crucial matter for the religious minorities, therefore the government should not be pressured to set the minimum age at 18 for conversion to Islam or any other religion."