Rising incidences in Pakistan of forced conversions to Islam have raised fresh fears for minorities in the Islamic republic, following the abduction of two Hindu teenage girls in Sindh province last week.

Over the course of the last month, underage Hindu girls have been abducted in different parts of Sindh province. Pakistan’s state agencies have been criticized for failing to protect minorities in Pakistan with Hindus and Christians bearing the brunt of forced “conversions” of teenaged girls who are then forced to marry Muslim men.

The latest incident was reported  last week when the father of a 14-year-old girl Mala Kumari Meghwar, filed a complaint with Sindh’s Badin district police station claiming that four men had abducted his daughter at gunpoint on March 17 from the village of Pitafi. Later, one of the kidnappers informed the reporters that the victim had converted to Islam “of her own free will” and married him.

This happened even as Prime Minister Imran Khan expressed his apprehensions over the alleged forced conversions and underage marriages of teenage sisters Reena (15) and Raveena (13) in Sindh’s Ghotki district on the eve of Holi festival celebrations. The prime minister instructed the chief ministers of Sindh and Punjab to immediately arrest the culprits involved in the incident and recover the girls.

The two abducted sisters and their “spouses” approached the Islamabad High Court on Monday seeking protection as the police arrested 14 suspects along with a Nikkah Khwan (an official registering the marriage contract). The court admitted the petition filed by the two Hindu sisters for a regular hearing and ordered the state to take the girls into custody for their protection.

The forced marriages of abducted sisters have been publicly legitimized by powerful religious lobbies running seminaries in the interior Sindh province of Pakistan. The leaders of Hindu minority groups claim that political and religious forces are involved in the abductions and the state seems helpless to take action against them.

Member of parliament and leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) Kesso Mal Kheeal Das told Asia Times, “It is alarming that only this month seven Hindu girls have been kidnapped, converted to Islam and forced to marry publicly with the backing of influential religious political forces.” The law enforcement agencies, he said, were clueless about the whereabouts of these girls. The PML-N member parliament from the minority Hindu community claimed that he had moved a “call attention” notice in the National Assembly and sought proper legislation to curb the excesses against the Hindu community of Sindh, which was the epicenter of these atrocities. “We do not want something extra-constitutional in demanding protection and honor for the community in line with the Islamic teachings and constitutional provisions,” Kesso Das said, adding that Islam does not approve of compulsion and forced conversion to the faith.

In 2016, the Sindh government introduced a minorities’ bill banning forcible religious conversions and the solemnizing of weddings of persons under 18 years of age. However the bill drew consternation from religious circles who found some of its clauses against Islamic teachings and Constitutional provisions.

The Sindh government sent the bill to the governor of Sindh for his assent, which he refused. This allowed powerful religious groups to scuttle the provincial government’s move to protect religious minorities. The Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) minority member of the parliament Dr Ramesh Kumar Vankwani made a similar effort this Tuesday by introducing two bills, the Child Marriage Restraint Act (Amendment) Bill 2019 and the Criminal Law (Protection of Minorities) Act 2019 in the National Assembly in support with other members from minorities.

Dr Ramesh said that in the resolutions he also demanded strict action to be taken against controversial religious elements, including Mian Mithu Bharchoondi and Pir Ayub Jan Sirhindi, for supporting atrocities against the Hindu community. The parliamentarians, he said, should ask these elements why male and older female members of the community seemingly did not wish to convert, and only young girls were converted?

Dr Syed Mehdi Hasan, chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan told Asia Times, “It was very unfortunate that the instances of forced conversion are on the rise in Sindh provinces where a number of religious seminaries in the interior parts of the province encouraged forceful marriages. These seminaries get political patronage and well-known personalities support atrocities against a hapless minority,” he said, adding that minorities did not feel secure in a country where no legislation exists to protect the rights and dignities of marginalized communities. “It is the responsibility of the government, state, and the parliamentarians to make stringent laws to discourage the rising trend of forced conversion and unsolicited marriages. The matter becomes more atrocious when the children below the age of 18 years are forced to marry in violation of laws,” he added.

According to the Pakistan Hindu Council, more than 8 million Hindus currently live in the different parts of Pakistan, making up 4% of the country’s population of 197 million. A majority of them reside in Sindh where they constitute 6.6 % of the population, mostly concentrated in the urban areas of the lower Indus valley. Almost half of the Hindu population in Sindh is settled in the southeast district of Tharparkar that borders India. India’s foreign minister Sushma Swaraj recently broached the issue and urged the Pakistani government to ensure the safety of its minorities and security for the two “abducted” Hindu teenage girls.