Mar 25, 2021 | Freedom of Religion and Belief | HRWF

A Pakistani national is fighting for his life at the European Court of Human Rights. Swiss authorities had rejected his request for religious asylum. The man, known by the initials “M.A.M”, appealed against his deportation based on his conversion from Islam to Christianity – a religion known to face severe persecution in parts of South Asia. Human rights group ADF International has intervened at Europe’s top court, providing up-to-date information on the situation for converts in the region and highlighting the robust legal protections for not just believing something, but being able to live in accordance with those beliefs. The court’s rulings impact more than 800 million Europeans in 47 countries.

“Nobody should be persecuted for their faith. Pakistan is one of the most dangerous countries for Christians with its draconian blasphemy laws and increasing violence towards Christian groups. Converts face not only socio-political marginalization and institutionalized discrimination, but also blasphemy charges, arrest, long prison sentences, and vigilante mob violence. The detention of Christians systematically involves mistreatment and abuse, both physical and psychological. Even when released, Christian converts must go into hiding or flee for their safety as friends and neighbours often turn against them. Such factors must form part of any risk assessment for those, such as M.A.M, who are claiming asylum based on religious grounds,” said Jennifer Lea, legal counsel for ADF International at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Call for international action amidst alarming threats to Christian converts

While the Federal Administrative Court of Switzerland affirmed that M.A.M’s conversion was indeed credible and occurred prior to his asylum rejection, they nevertheless found that his rights to life, to protection from inhumane treatment and to freedom of thought, conscience or religion would not be in jeopardy were he to be returned to Pakistan.

Pakistan is currently placed at number 5 on the World Watch List, which ranks countries based on their level of Christian persecution. The persecution level is classed as “extreme” due in part to its blasphemy laws which carry the death penalty. Converts from Islam are considered apostates and face particular risk.

The case of Asia Bibi, a woman accused of blasphemy and held on death row for eight years until she was acquitted, serves as a well-known example of the current threat. After her acquittal, there were violent demonstrations across Pakistan threatening her life. Following intense international pressure, she was finally allowed to leave and thereafter sought asylum in Canada.

Forced marriages of minors

ADF International allied lawyers are currently supporting the case of Maira within the Pakistani courts. The 14-year-old girl was abducted, raped and married as part of a “forced conversion” which she faced because she is a Christian. Maira waits in hiding while her pro bono legal team works to annul this marriage certificate. Her story is just one example of a violent phenomenon which affects an estimated 1,000 girls from religious minorities in Pakistan every year.

“International law protects the right to express one’s faith in public and in private. But, in Pakistan, simple attempts by Christians to talk about the faith with Muslim neighbours can be prosecuted under blasphemy laws, which can result in the death penalty. The cases of Asia Bibi and Maira, which gained international media attention, provide very real examples of the persecution that many Christians face. We hope the European Court of Human Rights will recognize the dangers faced by in particular by Christian converts in Pakistan, and afford protection to M.A.M and others like him,” said Tehmina Arora, Director of Advocacy, Asia for ADF International.