The number of Pakistani girls being forced to convert to Islam has increased during the pandemic, human rights advocates say according to an Associated Press report.

Nearly 1,000 girls from religious minorities in Pakistan are are forced to convert to Islam each year, but since underage girls have been out of school due to the pandemic, predators looking to kidnap and force them to convert to Islam have taken advantage of the circumstances, according to the AP.

Usually, male acquaintances and relatives looking for brides kidnap the girls, who are often from impoverished Hindu families or are Christians. Sometimes the girls are taken by landlords who are seeking payment from the parents, and police may not intervene. The goal is to target virginal brides.

Neha, who was forcibly converted from Christianity at the age of 14 and married to a 45-year-old man with children older than her,  told the AP that she was tricked into the marriage by an aunt she was close to. She said the aunt threatened to harm her 2-year-old brother if she refused to marry, so Neha had to sign a marriage certificate that included a name change to Fatima. She was then given a burqa by the man’s elder daughter before fleeing. 

Her family feared what her new husband would to do them, and so she sought refuge at a Christian church where she lives and continues to have nightmares about her experience. 

In November, Pakistani police rescued a 13-year-old Christian girl who disappeared and was allegedly forced to convert to Islam and marry a 44-year-old Muslim man. Non-Muslim girls are the most vulnerable to forced marriages because they’re easy targets, activist Jibran Nasir said, according to the AP. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reported in 2017 that 18% of Pakistani girls were married by the age of 18.

Child protection activists alleged that Islamic clerics solemnize the marriages, while local officials legalize them and police refuse to investigate the marriages. 

Pakistan is among the several countries that the U.S. has designated as a “country of particular concern” for tolerating severe religious freedom violations. The United States Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which issues an annual report on the subject, pointed to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and forced conversions of young Hindu, Christian, and Sikh women and girls to Islam.

According to Open Doors USA, an advocacy group for persecuted Christians internationally, persecution against Christians in Pakistan is extreme and subject to “Islamic oppression.” Christians make up roughly 1.6% of the total population of Pakistan, according to Global Religious Futures by the Pew-Templeton Project. Often, Christians are treated as second-class citizens regardless of whether they are poor or middle-class.

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