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« Thoroughly illegitimate »: forced conversion and marriage of women and girls called out at UN event

Giorgio sitting down with a group at UN
  • Women and girls from religious minorities face acute risk of forced conversion through forced marriage

  • Polish and Hungarian governments call for an end to injustice, alongside UN Special Rapporteur and human rights group ADF International

GENEVA (9 March 2023) – Globally, 100 million girls will be at risk due to child marriage over the next decade. The risk for girls from religious minorities has proven particularly acute. In Pakistan alone, every year, more than 1,000 girls from religious minorities are forced into marriage and conversion.

On the sidelines of the 52nd session of the Human Rights Council and on the eve of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance Spring Forum , a coalition of countries prioritizing religious freedom worldwide, high-level government officials, including several special envoys on freedom of religion or belief and UN ambassadors, as well as diplomats, UN officials, representatives from civil society and faith groups, and journalists gathered to discuss trends in restrictions on religious conversion.

In particular, representatives from Poland and Hungary called for increased religious freedom protections throughout the world. Coinciding with the expert meeting of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, the high-level event, hosted by Poland, Hungary, and ADF International, brought together the UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief and other actors to discuss challenges and solutions to the problem of forced conversions.

“Amid global indifference, millions of people around the world continue to suffer restrictions on their freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of their choice, as well as on the right to persuade others to adhere to another religion or belief, as recognized in international law. Ending this injustice should be a top priority for the United Nations and the international human rights community at large. As we move forward, we must strengthen our determination to ensure that every person is able to choose and live their religion or belief without any fear, » commented Giorgio Mazzoli, Director of UN Advocacy for ADF International, who moderated the event.

Experts Appeal to the UN to Secure Justice

Dr. Nazila Ghanea, UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief, drew particular attention to the disproportionate effect of religious freedom violations in the area of conversion on girls and women: “Forced conversions often happen in the context of forced marriages,” she said. Dr. Ghanea called for effective policies to prevent forced conversions and protect those who freely want to change their religion.

Mariam Ibraheem, a survivor of religious persecution who escaped a death sentence for apostasy, appealed to the UN and governments to redouble their efforts to end all violations of freedom of religion. Ibraheem, a native of Sudan, married a Christian man and was subsequently sentenced to death for refusing to renounce her Christian faith. She gave birth to her second child in prison while in chains.

As a result of international advocacy for her release, Ibraheem was freed and able to leave Sudan. Today she advocates for religious freedom worldwide. Ibraheem called on government representatives and policymakers to protect individuals and their families from laws restricting both the choice and manifestation of one’s religion or belief, including particularly apostasy and blasphemy laws.

Paweł Radomski, the Polish Special Envoy of the Minister of Foreign Affairs for Freedom of Religion or Belief, plead: “Any provisions penalizing or discriminating against individuals for leaving or changing their religion or belief need to be repealed, especially conversion punishable by death penalty or long prison term.”

Archbishop Fortunatus Nwachukwu, Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations made an important distinction in his statement: “While it is thoroughly illegitimate to coerce or restrict a person in their adoption of certain religious beliefs, the same cannot be said with regard to a respectful and thoughtful conversation about religious values and truths.” He highlighted the importance of preserving space for respectful and robust religious dialogue.

Sixteen-year-old challenges her forced marriage in Pakistan

Reeha Saleem is one of the thousand girls in Pakistan who experience forced conversions in the context of forced marriages. The sixteen-year-old was abducted by her neighbour while on her way home from school in the Gujrat district on November 13, 2019. She was taken to an unknown location by four men, subjected to violence, and forcibly married to one of her captors.

“They told me they would burn my face with acid if I didn’t do as they said. It was later when I was told that I had signed my faith away and was now married to Abbas…my neighbour who had been harassing me and making sexual advances towards me for a long time,” testified Saleem.

After two months of abuse, Saleem was able to flee from her perpetrator. Yet, since she remains formally “married” to her abuser, the police refuse to protect the teenager. ADF International is supporting the family’s lawyer, Advocate Sumera Shafique in her efforts to annul Reeha’s marriage.

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