Two Christians' forced conversion and torture widely condemned in Pakistan

Lahore, Pakistan. (Photo: Unsplash/Adeel Shabir)

An egregious incident of the forced conversion and torture of two Christian brothers in Pakistan’s Sialkot District has drawn widespread condemnation and outrage from the Christian community and human rights groups across the country.

Azam and Nadeem George Masih, Christian brothers from Sialkot, Punjab, were abducted, beaten and forcefully converted to Islam on 22 January 2024, when Azam was confronted by Naseem Shah and his group in Kharota Syedan's market under the jurisdiction of Kotli Loharan police station. Brandishing a loaded pistol, Shah abducted Azam from his small tailoring shop and took him to his accomplice - Sunny Shah's residence, where he was brutally beaten with iron rods.

Shah accused him of "spreading wrongdoing" and coerced his conversion to Islam by having him recite the Islamic conversion creed, under threat of death. Later Nadeem was also brought to the same location, underwent similar torture, and had his cell phone confiscated.

According to the account of local Christian activist Adil Ghauri, Chairman of Masihi Tehreek-e-Bedari, as told to Morning Star News, the assailants first accused Azam of "patronising wrongdoings" in the area before beginning their horrific assault. They then forced the two Christians to recite the shahada while threatening to kill them if they refused. The suspects also forcefully recorded a video statement of the brothers stating they were voluntarily converting to Islam, when they were under extreme duress amounting to torture.

After extracting these forced conversions and false confessions, the attackers released the traumatised victims but robbed them of their phones, cash, and other belongings. The impoverished Masih family initially kept silent about the harrowing ordeal, having been sternly warned by the suspects against contacting police or government authorities. However, after being counselled by community leaders including Ghauri, the family finally lodged a First Information Report number 77/24, against the assailants last week with Azam being the main complainant.

Subsequently, the Kotli Loharan police arrested a Muslim cleric alleged to have formally conducted the sham conversion, and registered criminal charges against primary suspects Naseem Shah, Sunny Shah, and their accomplices. These include non-bailable offences such as kidnapping, theft, criminal intimidation and intentionally causing grievous hurt to extort confession. According to information, both key suspects have known criminal backgrounds as-well-as an established history of inciting hatred against local Christians in the area.

Ghauri told Morning Star News that this was not an isolated occurrence, with at least two to three prior attempts made to inflame religious tensions by desecrating pages of the Quran and leaving them near Christian homes after the notorious Jaranwala mob attack against Christians last August. He accused the local police and district administration of failing to take timely preventive action against the suspects despite these clear warning signs.

The latest victims - Azam and Nadeem Masih - along with their family have currently gone into hiding due to palpable fear of reprisals by the influential perpetrators and their religious allies. While Ghauri and other Christian leaders are trying to provide legal assistance, the traumatised family has cut off contact after being terrorised by the accused.

Rights groups have asserted that this horrific episode clearly evidences the fact that forced conversions continue to take place in Pakistan under various false pretexts.

Speaking to Christian Today, human rights activist Salim Iqbal said, “In many similar cases, when people are forced to convert, an FIR is not usually filed. This case is different, and the FIR shows that the brothers were made to accept Islam against their will. The police also told the victims' family to stay quiet and not talk to the media, trying to suppress the matter.”

In recent years, a proposed bill criminalising forced conversions was scrapped in 2021 at the national level, while Sindh province managed to pass its own Act in 2016 carrying a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. However, the Sindh law has also not been implemented as yet due to resistance and opposition from hard-line Islamist parties and clerics. As Pakistan gears up for crucial general elections next week, Christian leaders and activists are strongly demanding that mainstream political parties fulfil their promises to prioritise outlawing forced conversions after assuming power.

“It is important for us to raise our voices, so that these kinds of incidents do not happen in the future,” Iqbal said. “Till such time that the brothers get justice, we will continue to speak about it and raise the matter,” he added.