By Maria Abi-Habib and Zia Ur-Rehman
The Hindus performed the prayer rituals awkwardly in supplication to their new, single god, as they prepared to leave their many deities behind them. Their lips stumbled over Arabic phrases that, once recited, would seal their conversion to Islam. The last words uttered, the men and boys were then circumcised.
Dozens of Hindu families converted in June in the Badin district of Sindh Province in southern Pakistan. Video clips of the ceremony went viral across the country, delighting hard-line Muslims and weighing on Pakistan’s dwindling Hindu minority.
The mass ceremony was the latest in what is a growing number of such conversions to Pakistan’s majority Muslim faith in recent years — although precise data is scarce. Some of these conversions are voluntary, some not.
News outlets in India, Pakistan’s majority-Hindu neighbor and archrival, were quick to denounce the conversions as forced. But what is happening is more subtle. Desperation, religious and political leaders on both sides of the debate say, has often been the driving force behind their change of religion.
Treated as second-class citizens, the Hindus of Pakistan are often systemically discriminated against in every walk of life — housing, jobs, access to government welfare. While minorities have long been drawn to convert in order to join the majority and escape discrimination and sectarian violence, Hindu community leaders say that the recent uptick in conversions has also been motivated by newfound economic pressures.
“What we are seeking is social status, nothing else,” said Muhammad Aslam Sheikh, whose name was Sawan Bheel until June, when he converted in Badin with his family. The ceremony in Badin was notable for its size, involving just over 100 people.
“These conversions,” he added, “are becoming very common in poor Hindu communities.”
Proselytizing Muslim clerics and charity groups add to the faith’s allure, offering incentives of jobs or land to impoverished minority members only if they convert.
With Pakistan’s economy on the brink of collapse in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the pressures on the country’s minorities, often its poorest people, have increased. The economy will contract by 1.3 percent in the 2020 fiscal year because of the pandemic, the World Bank predicts. And up to 18 million of Pakistan’s 74 million jobs may be lost.
Mr. Sheikh and his family hope to find financial support from wealthy Muslims or from Islamic charities that have cropped up in recent years, which focus on drawing more people to Islam.
“There is nothing wrong with that,” Mr. Sheikh said. “Everyone helps the people of their faith.”
As Mr. Sheikh sees it, there is nothing left for Pakistan’s more affluent Hindus to give to help the people of their own faith. That is because there are so few Hindus left.
At independence in 1947, Hindus composed 20.5 percent of the population of the areas that now form Pakistan. In the following decades, the percentage shrank rapidly, and by 1998 — the last government census to classify people by religion — Hindus were just 1.6 percent of Pakistan’s population. Most estimates say it has further dwindled in the past two decades.
Once a melting pot of religions, Sindh Province, where the conversion ceremony took place, has seen minority members flee to other countries in droves in recent decades. Many face harsh discrimination, as well as the specter of violence — and the risk of being accused of blasphemy, a capital crime — if they speak out against it.
“The dehumanization of minorities coupled with these very scary times we are living in — a weak economy and now the pandemic — we may see a raft of people converting to Islam to stave off violence or hunger or just to live to see another day,” said Farahnaz Ispahani, a former Pakistani lawmaker who is now a senior fellow at the Religious Freedom Institute, a research group in Washington.
Ms. Ispahani recalled the devastating floods of 2010 in Sindh Province, which left thousands homeless and with little to eat. Hindus were not allowed to sit with Muslims at soup kitchens, she said. And when government aid was handed out, Hindus received less of it than their Muslim peers did, she said.
“Will they be converting with their hearts and souls?” Ms. Ispahani said. “I don’t think so.”
The further economic devastation caused by the pandemic may spur more sectarian violence, and that may intensify the pressure on minorities to convert, Ms. Ispahani and others worry.
Murtaza Wahab, an adviser to the chief minister of Sindh, was among several government officials who said they could not address Ms. Ispahani’s accusation that Hindus received less aid after the floods, as it happened before they took office.
“The Hindu community is an important part of our society and we believe that people from all faiths should live together without issue,” Mr. Wahab said.
Forced conversions of Hindu girls and women to Islam through kidnapping and coerced marriages occur throughout Pakistan. But Hindu rights groups are also troubled by the seemingly voluntary conversions, saying they take place under such economic duress that they are tantamount to a forced conversion anyway.
“Overall, religious minorities do not feel safe in Pakistan,” said Lal Chand Mahli, a Pakistani Hindu lawmaker with the ruling party, who is a member of a parliamentary committee to protect minorities from forced conversions. “But poor Hindus are the most vulnerable among them. They are extremely poor and illiterate, and Muslim mosques, charities and traders exploit them easily and lure them to convert to Islam. A lot of money is involved in it.”
Clerics like Muhammad Naeem were at the forefront of an effort to convert more Hindus. (Mr. Naeem, who was 62, died of cardiac arrest two weeks after he was interviewed in June).
Mr. Naeem said he had overseen more than 450 conversions over the past two years at Jamia Binoria, his seminary in Karachi. Most of the converts were low-caste Hindus from Sindh Province, he said.
“We have not been forcing them to convert,” Mr. Naeem said. “In fact, people come to us because they want to escape discrimination attached with their caste and change their socioeconomic status.”
Demand was so great, he added, that his seminary had set up a separate department to guide the new converts and provide counsel in legal or financial matters.
On a recent afternoon, the call to prayer echoed through a cluster of newly erected tents in Matli, a barren patch of Sindh. A group of Karachi’s wealthy Muslim merchants bought the land last year for dozens of families who had converted from Hinduism.
At a new mosque adjacent to the tents, Muhammad Ali — who was known by his Hindu name, Rajesh, before converting last year alongside 205 others — performed ablutions before praying.
Last year, his entire family had decided to convert to Islam when Mr. Naeem, the cleric, offered to free them from the bonded labor in which they were trapped, living and working as indentured servants because of unpaid debt. Mr. Ali is originally from the Bheel caste, one of the lowest in Hinduism.
“We have found a sense of equality and brotherhood in Islam, and therefore we converted to it,” Mr. Ali said.
Lower-caste Pakistani Hindus are often the victims of bonded labor. It was outlawed in 1992, but the practice is still prevalent. The Global Slavery Index estimates that just over three million Pakistanis live in debt servitude.
Landlords trap poor Hindus into such bondage by providing loans that they know can never be repaid. They and their families are then forced to work off the debt. The women are often sexually abused, rights groups say.
Mr. Naeem’s seminary had rescued several Hindus — including Mr. Ali and his family — from bonded labor by paying off their debts in exchange for their conversions to Islam.
When Mr. Ali and his family converted, Mr. Naeem and a group of rich Muslim traders had given them a piece of land and helped them find work, considering it an Islamic responsibility to help them.
“Those who make efforts to spread the message and bring the non-Muslims into the fold of Islam will be blessed in the hereafter,” Mr. Naeem said.