On the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, ACN calls attention to the suffering of Christian women in countries where sexual violence is used as a weapon against religious minorities, and urges national governments and international organisations to do more to combat the increasing number of these violations, which are often committed with impunity, fuelling concerns that they form part of a fundamentalist strategy to hasten the disappearance of certain religious groups from their countries.
“If being believing in Jesus Christ presents a serious threat in many parts of the world, being a female Christian is even more difficult. In many countries where religious persecution is still rife, violence against women is often used as a weapon of discrimination”, says Thomas Heine-Geldern, executive president of Aid to the Church in Need. “The year that is now drawing to a close saw again numerous cases of Christian women and girls being kidnapped and forced to convert and marry men of other religions”.
Michelle Clark, an academic who has studied this phenomenon extensively, especially in relation to Egypt, says that these attacks are part of a larger trend. “Attacks against Christian women have increased in number – and yes, it has something to do with religion. There is evidence that they are planned down to the last detail. More cases are being reported. But many cases are left unreported”, she explains.
Michelle Clark was one of the experts who collaborated with Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) on the “Hear her cries” report, regarding “the kidnapping, forced conversion and sexual victimisation of Christian women and girls”. In an interview with ACN she explains the effects of this targeted violence.
“It does more than tear families apart. Violence against Christian women is a weapon being used to wage war against religious minorities. If a Christian is forced to convert or is forcibly married to a Muslim, it is impossible for her to return to her Christian faith – even if she can free herself, or is released from the marriage. Her children will always remain Muslim. Mothers and their children are a growing target group. You are not only removing a single person from the group of Christians, but a mother and her progeny.”
ACN has supported partners on the ground to increase protection for Christian women in countries such as Pakistan, where the number of forced conversion and marriages, including Hindus and Sikhs, was 78 in 2021, with 38 cases involving Christians, according to the Lahore-based Center for Social Justice. By some estimates, however, the number is much higher, with some suggesting that as many as 1000 cases occur every year.
Laws that carry no weight
In some cases, legislation has been passed that ensures protection on paper, but this often does not change reality on the ground.
In Pakistan, for instance, underage marriage is illegal, yet several lower courts have recognised forced marriages of underage girls. With the help of sympathetic police and judges, Muslim fundamentalists can kidnap and rape young Christian women, say that they voluntarily consented to convert and marry, and have this validated. Even when higher courts reverse the decision, this takes time, and the abuse suffered leaves permanent scars.
“The surrounding pressure in courts from extremist groups, the biased attitude of police, the fear of harm from the abductor, and associated stigma force the victim to often give a statement in favour of her abductor”, says Father Emmanuel Yousaf, from Pakistan’s national Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP). ACN has partnered with the CCJP to help strengthen legislation to protect victims.
Trouble under the surface
Saba was 15 when she was abducted in Faisalabad. Her parents filed a report with the police, but were informed that she had married her kidnapper.
“On the surface, everything is all right, but sadly, in many cases, a girl’s family meets a hostile police administration when it tries to file a report for the abduction or rape”, Merab Arif, from the CCJP, explains. “Even in cases where the parents do succeed in having the complaint registered, the police often fail to rescue the girl. And if the case comes to the courts, they are also reluctant to protect the girls, allegedly due to pressure from violent mobs.”
Islamic fundamentalists have also thwarted attempts to pass legislation that could further protect members of minorities. At least two important bills, the Domestic Violence Prevention and Protection Bill 2020, and the Prohibition of Forced Conversions Bill 2021, failed to become law due to objections by the Council of Islamic Ideology.
Saba was eventually recovered, but Catholic priest Father Khalid Rashid says these success stories are not the rule. “Success in recovering such girls is rare, people give up halfway through, but we shall never compromise on the dignity of our children.”
On the forefront
Besides Pakistan, ACN supports projects all over the world that help to dignify and protect women. One example, which serves women who were often subjected to terrible abuse by terrorist groups such as Boko Haram, is in Nigeria. During a visit to ACN’s headquarters, auxiliary Bishop John Bakeni, of Maiduguri, made an appeal to stand up to this evil, saying that “as a Church we should be at the forefront of addressing these issues. Through the assistance of ACN we have a trauma centre which serves many people in the communities and in the camps, especially the victims. The Church sees this as a priority, so we are at the forefront, working alongside other stakeholders to see that this issue is addressed, and rejected in our society.”