KARACHI, Pakistan (AP) —
Neha loved the hymns that filled her church with music. But she lost the chance to sing them last year when, at the age of 14, she was forcibly converted from Christianity to Islam and married to a 45-year-old man with children twice her age.
She tells her story in a voice so low it occasionally fades away. She all but disappears as she wraps a blue scarf tightly around her face and head. Neha’s husband is in jail now facing charges of rape for the underage marriage, but she is in hiding, afraid after security guards confiscated a pistol from his brother in court.
“He brought the gun to shoot me,” said Neha, whose last name The Associated Press is not using for her safety.
Neha is one of nearly 1,000 girls from religious minorities who are forced to convert to Islam in Pakistan each year, largely to pave the way for marriages that are under the legal age and non-consensual. Human rights activists say the practice has accelerated during lockdowns against the coronavirus, when girls are out of school and more visible, bride traffickers are more active on the Internet and families are more in debt.
The U.S. State Department this month declared Pakistan “a country of particular concern” for violations of religious freedoms — a designation the Pakistani government rejects. The declaration was based in part on an appraisal by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom that underage girls in the minority Hindu, Christian, and Sikh communities were “kidnapped for forced conversion to Islam… forcibly married and subjected to rape.”
While most of the converted girls are impoverished Hindus from southern Sindh province, two new cases involving Christians, including Neha’s, have roiled the country in recent months.
The girls generally are kidnapped by complicit acquaintances and relatives or men looking for brides. Sometimes they are taken by powerful landlords as payment for outstanding debts by their farmhand parents, and police often look the other way. Once converted, the girls are quickly married off, often to older men or to their abductors, according to the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
Forced conversions thrive unchecked on a money-making web that involves Islamic clerics who solemnize the marriages, magistrates who legalize the unions and corrupt local police who aid the culprits by refusing to investigate or sabotaging investigations, say child protection activists.
One activist, Jibran Nasir, called the network a “mafia” that preys on non-Muslim girls because they are the most vulnerable and the easiest targets “for older men with pedophilia urges.”
The goal is to secure virginal brides rather than to seek new converts to Islam. Minorities make up just 3.6 percent of Pakistan’s 220 million people and often are the target of discrimination. Those who report forced conversions, for example, can be targeted with charges of blasphemy.