By Susan Korah
A recent UN report on atrocities perpetrated in Pakistan against girls and young women from Christian and other minority faith communities should serve as a wake-up call, and prompt urgent action by the Canadian government, say Canadian activists.
They are calling on the Canadian government to put pressure on Pakistan to stop these crimes, and protect the rights of religious minorities, enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to which the South Asian country became a signatory in 1948.
“We are deeply troubled to hear that girls as young as 13 are being kidnapped from their families, trafficked to locations far from their homes, made to marry men sometimes twice their age, and coerced to convert to Islam,” a group ofindependent human rights experts reported to the UN Human Rights Council.
The experts said they were “very concerned” that marriages and conversions have taken place “under threat of violence to these girls and women or their families.”
They noted “the courts had also sometimes misused interpretations of religious law to justify victims remaining with their abusers, and the police had failed victims’ families by refusing to register the abductions.”
“I think the UN statement is a positive step because it brings more attention to the issue,” Garnett Genuis, MP for Sherwood Park-Fort Saskatchewan told The Catholic Register. “It highlights the intersection of violence against women and the abuse of religious minority rights.” Genuis said he had tabled two petitions in Parliament on June 16 and Sept. 21, 2022, asking the government to “call upon the Government of Pakistan to combat the abduction and forced marriages of women and girls of minorities.”
So far, there has been no further action beyond the standard government response that is required within 45 days of tabling a petition.
Genuis added that the current Canadian government is not sensitive to the dynamics of international religious freedom and its importance in foreign policy.
“This is obvious because they cancelled the Office of Ambassador for Religious Freedom,” he said, referring to the position held by Andrew Bennett, which was abolished in 2016 by the Trudeau government.
“International religious freedom should not be a partisan issue, but the current government has made it into one.”
He said the government, though it talks a lot about its feminist foreign policy, has failed to see the interconnectedness of women’s rights and religious minorities’ rights.
Lack of action on this file includes a failure on the part of Immigration, Refugees, Citizenship Canada (IRCC) to recognize the urgency of cases of forced marriage and its impact on families, said Peter Bhatti, president of International Christian Voice (ICV) a Toronto-based NGO that advocates for Christians and other minorities in Pakistan.
“We (ICV) are still working on the case of Maria Shahbaz, a girl who was forcibly converted and married against her will at the age of 14,” he said. “We applied about three years ago to bring her and her family to Canada, and are still waiting for a response from IRCC.”
He also cited the case of Arzoo Raja, a Christian girl who was kidnapped and raped, and whose family is being constantly harassed and threatened in Pakistan.
He said ICV is helping them fight the case through the Pakistani court system.
But Bhatti, an immigrant from Pakistan, emphasized there is little hope of seeing justice done in his birth country. He said there is no respect for rule of law, and the situation of Christians is getting worse, even after his brother Shahbaz sacrificed his life in defence of the rights of all minorities.
Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s former minister of minority affairs and the only Christian (Catholic) minister in the government of then-President Asif Zardari, was A stalwart defender of minority rights in his country, Shahbaz was gunned down by Taliban militants on March 2, 2011. He has been recognized as a Servant of God by the Catholic Church.
Raheel Raza, a Pakistani Canadian Muslim activist and president of the organization Muslims Facing Tomorrow, agreed with Peter Bhatti that the courts in Pakistan are notorious for failing to bring perpetrators of crimes against women and minorities to justice. Raza herself has earned notoriety among Islamist extremists for her outspoken criticism of violence perpetrated in the name of her religion.
“We have seen a rise in these cases in Pakistan since the late 1970s when Pakistan toyed with extremism which led to terrorism,” she said. “Forced conversions and forced marriages are terrorism. Pakistan has a parallel legal system of sharia courts and here lies the problem. Nobody dares challenge its verdicts, so it’s grossly misused. The secular legal system is unable to tackle this disease, so it’s rampant, and even law enforcement is unable to keep checks on it, so you can see the enormity of the problem.”
Bhatti and Raza said the Canadian government should seize the opportunity afforded by the UN statement, and take concrete steps to help Pakistan become a land of equal rights for all citizens, as envisioned in the 1940s by its founding father and first governor general, Muhammed Ali Jinnah.
“The Canadian government should directly engage Pakistani officials in a dialogue on this issue,” said Bhatti, pointing out Canada is well positioned to do so because it has several MPs of Pakistani origin.