An Islamist cleric presided over the forced conversion of two Christians in Sialkot District, Pakistan after they were tortured into reciting the Islamic conversion creed, sources said.
Azam Masih, 28, and his brother, Nadeem Masih, were abducted, beaten with iron rods and pressured to convert to Islam on Jan. 22 in the Kotli Loharan area, said Adil Ghauri, chairman of the Masihi Baidari Tehreek or Movement for Christian Awakening.
Azam Masih was working at his tailoring shop in the Kharota Syedan market when Naseem Shah and accomplices held him at gunpoint and forcibly took him to the house of another suspect, Sunny Shah, Ghauri said.
“The assailants accused Azam of patronizing ‘wrongdoings’ in the area and started beating him with iron rods,” Ghauri told Christian Daily International-Morning Star News, adding that the suspects later abducted his younger brother, brought him to the house and subjected him to the same torture. “The accused then forced the two Christians to recite the Kalima [proclamation of Islamic conversion] if they wanted to save their lives, threatening to kill them if they refused. The tortured brothers had no choice but to surrender to this demand.”
The suspects also recorded a video statement of the two brothers in which they were forced to say that they were converting to Islam of their own free will, Ghauri said. He added that the assailants also snatched mobile phones and other belongings from the two brothers before releasing them.
The rights activist said the brothers and their impoverished Christian family chose to keep silent about the ordeal, as the suspects had warned them against contacting police.
“We came to know about this incident on Jan. 24 and immediately contacted the family,” Ghauri said. “After much persuasion, we were able to convince the family to file a First Information Report [FIR] with the police, as keeping silent would have only encouraged the perpetrators to target more Christians living in the village.”
More than 300 Christian families are settled there, he added.
Kotli Loharan police arrested a Muslim cleric alleged to have conducted the conversion and registered charges against the suspects of kidnapping, punishable by death or life imprisonment; theft with intention to cause injury or death, punishable by up to 10 years in prison; threatening death or grievous injury, punishable by up to seven years in prison; causing injury to extort a confession, punishable by up to 10 years in prison; and acts committed by several persons in furtherance of common intention.
The suspects, Naseem Shah and Sunny Shah, have criminal backgrounds and have been involved in inciting hatred against Christians, Ghauri said.
“This is not the first time Christians have been targeted in that area,” Ghauri said. “In fact, after the Aug. 16, 2023 attacks in Jaranwala, at least two-three attempts were made to stir religious tension by throwing torn pages of the Quran near Christian homes. Had the police and district administration taken timely action against the perpetrators of those incidents, this incident could have been prevented.”
Local Christian leaders were engaged with Muslim scholars and government officials to maintain peace in the village, he said, but the two brothers and their family have gone into hiding – and cut off contact with those who are trying to provide them legal help, he said.
“The family has cut off all contact due to fear of reprisal by the accused Muslims,” Ghauri said. “We are trying to find them, because their statements are crucial to ensure prosecution of the accused.”
The attack was evidence that forced conversions were taking place in Pakistan under various pretexts, he said.
“Not only our minor girls, but even our young men are being targeted by Islamist elements,” Ghauri said. “These incidents vindicate our genuine demand for criminalizing forced faith conversions in Pakistan.”
In October 2021, a federal parliamentary committee scrapped a proposed bill that would have criminalized forced conversions with up to 10 years of prison.
In 2016, Sindh Province passed a law declaring forced conversion a punishable offense carrying a life sentence. The province’s governor, however, refused to ratify the legislation due to pressure from Islamist parties.
As Pakistan gears up for general elections on Feb. 8, Christian rights advocates and church leaders are pressing mainline political parties to ensure legislation against forced conversions after a new government takes charge. Though some parties have pledged to take action against forced conversions in their election manifestos, previous promises to address the issue remain unfulfilled.
Pakistan ranked seventh on Open Doors’ 2024 World Watch List of the most difficult places to be a Christian, as it was the previous year.