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To escape abusive marriages, many Christians in Pakistan convert to Islam

A woman gives her children a shower on a roadside during a heatwave in Lahore, Pakistan, on April 19, 2017. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Mohsin Raza

Christian women worship together at a Mass at All Saints Church in Peshawar, Pakistan, on Dec. 25, 2015. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Khuram Parvez

LAHORE, Pakistan (RNS) For a Pakistani Christian like Shameela Masih, divorcing her abusive husband meant two choices — both nearly as bad as staying in the marriage.

“I have to prove adultery allegations against him,” said Masih, a 34-year-old mother of two. “The other option I have is to convert to Islam.”

Masih recently filed for divorce from a husband she said “frequently beats me up” and a mother-in-law who she said burned her leg with coal.

But under the majority-Muslim country’s laws, she must produce a witness who would testify to committing adultery with her husband. As a result, she’s now reluctantly planning to renounce her faith.

“Converting is the easiest way out,” she said. “My family tells me that they will disown me as a Muslim, but I don’t have a choice.”

A Christian bride walks into Naulakha Presbyterian Church in Lahore, Pakistan.

Masih is one of thousands of Christians in Pakistan who have converted to Islam to divorce their spouses under laws stemming from the British colonial period, when traditional morals held sway.

Now Pakistani officials are considering revising the law to make it easier for couples to part ways.

“There are so many things in the existing 19th-century Christian Marriage Act that need to be revised and updated to stop the exploitation of people and protect the human rights,” said Kamran Michael, the federal minister for human rights who is spearheading the drive for the legislation.

The law grants divorces to Christian couples on four grounds: adultery, conversion, marriage to another or cruelty. But proving adultery or cruelty is tough, especially in Pakistan, where adultery is a crime, and the stigma against domestic violence is weak in many parts of the country. Christians comprise less than 2 percent of Pakistan’s population of 189 million.

Muslims, on the other hand, can easily obtain a divorce for a variety of reasons, including irreconcilable differences.

Formerly, Pakistan’s laws on divorce mirrored those in Britain. But in the early 1980s, then-military dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq restored older laws from the colonial period that applied to Christians divorcing. For Muslims, he left revised laws from the 1960s intact.

“The current law on Christian divorce undermines the dignity of women,” said Fauzia Viqar, who chairs the Punjab Commission on the Status of Women. “Many Christian women are left in marriages where they are suffering cruelty by husbands without any relief from the state.”

The law also puts needless stress on couples, said would-be divorcees.

“I want to divorce my wife amicably without charging her of adultery,” said Emanuel Anthony, 29, a Christian street vendor in Lahore who has been married for five years. “She is the mother of my child. Why should I assassinate her character in public?”

His wife, Nabila, agreed.

A woman gives her children a shower on a roadside during a heat wave in Lahore, Pakistan, on April 19, 2017. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Mohsin Raza

“We have been separated for a year now. There is an understanding between us that we are not compatible and want different things from life,” said the 25-year-old Christian who teaches mathematics at a Catholic school. “I don’t understand what the issue is, and why a law should govern my right to divorce.”

Slated to be unveiled in Parliament in the coming weeks, the new law would expand the grounds for divorce and separate it from the Christian religion. Couples would be able to marry by registering with the government and then solemnizing their nuptials in the church if they so choose, said human rights ministry officials.

“Pakistani Christian couples would be able to divorce amicably without hurtling adultery accusations or converting to another religion,” said Haroon Sulaiman, a family lawyer in Lahore. “This will give the persecuted minority some relief.”

The Catholic Church opposed the changes.

“Marriage is a lifelong and indissoluble union for better or for worse in Christianity – you cannot just amend the laws of God,” said Catholic Bishop James Mathew. “Marriage is a sacrament, not a contract. This change is to defame our religion. Supporting the changes is like going against the Bible.”

Masih said Christian leaders like Mathew can overlook her and other women because they weren’t married.

“No one cares about us, we are left at the mercy of the Muslims and Christians alike,” she said. “Once in power, they don’t do anything for us. The Christian leaders are more worried about church politics instead of helping poor people like us.”

(Correspondent Naila Inayat is based in Lahore)

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Naila Inayat

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  • Once more we see how “traditional religious values” are used to promote abusive behavior, unnecessary conflict and indifference to injustice.

  • Wife abuse was sanctioned by the RCC under the Draconian interpretation of scripture.
    Wives had to bear the lumps & be ready 24/7 to receive the deposit of his seed.
    An all male hierarchy is pro patriarchy! Go women, go! Leave on your own terms.

  • Interesting that Scott Lively has written an op-ed suggesting that there is theological room for a ‘Family Values’ coalition between conservative Christians, conservative Muslims and orthodox Jews. “Traditional religious values” seemingly have no faith boundaries.

  • No person – male or female should be forced to remain in an abusive relationship.
    Pretending to be another “religion” will not allow satan to snatch one out of Christ’s hand. We are inscribed on the palm of His hand.

  • “No person – male or female should be forced to remain in an abusive relationship.”

    Yet you do not disavow or argue for different interpretations of scripture from the ones used by Christians to justify abuse and remaining in such relationships. You do not voice displeasure at the Bishop saying such relationships are absolute. You lack the willpower to abide by your stated beliefs here.

    You are either trying to say the right thing but lack conviction or simply pretending to oppose a view you really support.

  • The apparently fictional one which supposedly condones:

    “No person – male or female should be forced to remain in an abusive relationship.”

    Please by all means prove me wrong. I won’t even argue the point if you do.

  • So…. instead of being grateful and supportive that a predominantly Muslim nation is making it easier for Christians to live their lives without discrimination and abuse, the Catholic church is doubling down, telling their own people that they don’t have the right to escape abuse?

    Makes sense.

  • Separation is not the difficulty. Remarriage is. “A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.” 1Cor.7:10-11.

  • It is an unfortunate framing of the law which puts these individuals in such a bind, where they have to choose between their faith and the conditions of their marital relationship. In America, where divorce is as easy as falling off a log, the situation is less fraught with risk, so we would do well to comment lightly. If a pragmatic reframing of the law is in the cards, I would gently counsel these individuals to endure for a while longer rather then renounce their faith, even if the renunciation is merely formal and not heartfelt.

  • Excellent and proper citation, I should have considered your point in my own post.

  • I think you’re right, but I’m a little queasy about the concept of renunciation. I don ‘t have chapter and verse in front of me, but there’s something about denying Christ before men, with the consequence of Him denying such before the Father. Hence my unease.

  • I think Shawnie5 put it best from a scriptural perspective. In the New Testament, allowances are made for separation absent divorce, except for adultery. I’ve known a number of Christian women who have adopted this practice. It’s no doubt a difficult one, but I admire those who in a desire to be faithful to God and scripture adhere to it as one of the many crosses we bear as believers.

  • I think you’re right Edward……
    Matthew 10:26“So have no fear of them, for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. 27What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. 28And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.h 29Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?i And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. 31Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. 32So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, 33but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.”
    So, if this article is correct – I have my doubts – I think the Lord would understand, but I have no scripture to uphold that other than He knows our hearts…..I suppose that would be contingent on how much she chose to follow Islam. My prayer, if this is true, is that He would understand….

  • By all means find the scripture which justifies, your statement “No person – male or female should be forced to remain in an abusive relationship.”

    Because we know from this article there are plenty of Christian clergy and religious authority figures who have claimed the reverse is true.

    I believe your statement was a genuine expression of belief and opinion here. But it clearly runs counter to what many have said that scripture says on the subject. I am certain you have something to quote to demonstrate you are correct and they are not.

    I have faith in your ability to justify yourself in scripture here. You have never shied away from doing so before. Its totally not sarcastic at all. I am legitimately curious what you would cite here.

  • “Absent divorce, except for adultery” still means essentially keeping a toxic or abusive marriage for its own sake. Separation is not ending of a marriage nor giving people the chance to move on from one.

    Sandi was saying no person should remain in an abusive relationship. I agree with her and was curious how she can be justified in scripture. Especially given how quotes like Shawnie’s can easily be used to keep an abusive relationship going on.

  • This surprises me not at all. As a Reform Jew who’s spent years studying both other faiths and our own intra-faith divisions, I’m quite certain that Orthodox Jewry and Evangelical Christianity have more in common from a social and political standpoint than Orthodox and Reform Jews. One need only look at voting trends among Jews over the last 20 years or so for a very minor, yet telling, example.

  • There is no Catholic bishop in Pakistan called ‘James Matthew’ She should get her people right first.

  • Because it is better to force ladies to endure abuse than to actually sanction divorce.

  • I don’t doubt you for a moment.

    I was finding it a little humorous that three groups who have similar agendas but mutual hostility towards each other are willing to put aside the their differences to make life miserable for everyone.

  • When I first came into Christianity, I had a sweet, godly woman who was mentoring me. I cannot speak highly enough about her. She is with the Lord now.
    We discussed how the Bible only allows adultery and I asked her about an abusive relationship. She told me that women are not required to remain in such. I’ve never seen a scripture telling men to beat their wives, or cut apart their genitals or that women were two paces behind. We have different roles than men, but we are equal to men.
    Scripture, I’ve come up with one, but I’m not certain it pertains to the subject.
    Christ would not have a woman being hurt.

  • “Christ would not have a woman being hurt”

    How would that NOT be appropriate here? 🙂

    Well said.

  • FGM is local tribal tradition in Horn of Africa and has nothing to do with Islam. The Korean Christians eat dogs in Korea does that mean we accuse all Christians around the world of eating dogs ?

  • Actually many islamic groups endorse FGM.http://www.detroitnews.com/story/news/local/detroit-city/2017/04/23/female-genital-mutilation/100816704/
    http://www.cnsnews.com/news/article/patrick-goodenough/young-arab-men-just-rigid-elders-gender-equality-views-survey-finds
    — Seventy percent of men – and 56 percent of women – expressed support for female genital mutilation, with 68 percent of men and 59 percent of women agreeing female circumcision is a religious requirement.

    –Seventy-four percent of men–and 56 percent of women–agreed that it “is important to continue female circumcision because of customs and tradition.”

  • I see no problem with this you can renounce your faith and still believe. Too much emphasis is put on religion rather than on God these days.

  • You missed a fairly clear point, separation goes a long way towards diminishing or eliminating abuse, although admittedly it does not provide the freedom to divorce or remarry. This is a cross for members of the church to bear, not those outside of it.

  • Of course, His ways are so far beyond our ability to comprehend, that in any case we are called to believe that God is good despite our capacity to sort it all out by mere human reason, but I will always try to hew to the line He has laid out as clearly as possible in His word.

  • True. It is not necessary to acquire a new partner in order to “move on” from an abusive relationship. I think previous generations understood this better, when marriage was not something everyone considered themselves entitled to just because, but was very much a matter of qualifications and suitability for both parties.

    And of course where children are present, there is no such thing as truly “moving on,” ever.

  • “This is a cross for members of the church to bear, not those outside of it.”

    Which brings us to the subject here. Rather than deal with such arbitrary silliness of keeping a marriage together strictly for religious dictates, these women convert.

  • Then one must question how deep their commitment to their faith was in the first place. For my part, regarding other spiritual questions in my own life, I’m compelled to question and test that commitment every day. But I doubt that these women consider their situation a function of arbitrary silliness but an unhappy circumstance with no easy choices, a potential that arises solely apart from religious dictates.

  • As is often the case, you have noted something that I missed in my haste; the inability to move on because of the offspring from the marriage. While customs and circumstances in central Asia differ markedly from America, in our own case I believe people enter into the marriage contract with far too light a regard for what it entails in both the temporal and spiritual senses, and therefore both individual and societal costs are huge. This is what causes me heartburn.

  • Most people don’t choose the religion they identify with. So deep commitment is hardly the norm in most believers.

    They are born abscessed into it. Those women probably consider the religious based laws arbitrary, silly, and unnecessarily oppressive.

  • I haven’t studied it as extensively as you, but came to the same conclusion that liberal believers in religions have more rapport with liberals in other religions than with conservatives conservatires their own religion.

  • I think your first assertion is subject to question, on your 2nd assertion, I find the term abscessed, prejudicial.

  • Really? The largest and oldest faiths and sects didn’t spread through mass conversion. They spread demographically. Believers having babies and raising their children in their belief. It is the primary reason for various prohibitions on contraception and abortion in many faiths.

  • What if the wife is ‘abusive’?! Abuse goes much deeper than just physicality. Physical scars are finite emotional scars are infinite. Some women; though loved by their husbands, tend to be disconnected and silent for no conceivable reason (which even surprises the marriage councilor/ psychiatrist). That is also abuse men are also victims of their wife’s ‘silent’ abuse through sever disconnection. Spare me the cliche’s; they don’t need space, they need the next new, even when the husband is there for her emotionally, physically, financially and her comfort is his only priority they still disconnect! What motives lie beneath who can say till its too late. Don’t let it be late. Intervene and counter the wife’s abuse of silence, disrespect, disconnection, pretentiousness, Inextricability, unresonability and betrayal. The wife can leave a so called abusive marriage but what if she is the instigator of abuse what if she is abusive. What then? The man should just be patient and turn the other cheek so to speak. Then women should also work on their marriages instead of escaping. Women and Men are equals. But women use the ‘weak gender’ cliche’ much to their advantage and very cleverly so. They become so clever that any attempts by the husband to save the marriage are utterly undermined.

  • Why do we use this term ‘forced’?! How about trying to fix the relationship! This is a religious forum is it not? Victims or not we should ALWAYS try to fix our marriage no matter what. People don’t change but they can emulate change for the greater good. I know I can.

  • I don’t believe that for a moment.
    Especially when abuse enters the picture. Keeping a marriage together for arbitrary outside reasons never works. It’s a recipe for enabling abuse and prolonged cruelty. A marriage which can or should be saved doesn’t need this kind of support. People don’t generally enter into divorce lightly even under easiest of legal conditions.

  • You seem to underestimate the goodness in people because you think it doesn’t exist. Moreover, please list down 5 or more “arbitrary outside reasons” pertaining to someone wanting to keep their marriage alive when the wife is only crying foul to hide her own malicious intent.

  • Not at all. Goodness exists, but it requires no outside rules to ensure its existence.

    “when the wife is only crying foul to hide her own malicious intent.”

    If either spouse has “malicious intent”, there is no point in continuing a marriage.

  • Because Catholicism is an evil religion ran by pedophiles and gays. They don’t care about a woman getting her butt kicked by this animal and his bitch mom!

  • And his abusive mother too? I doubt both will emulate change. It’s their evil spirit guiding them. They need to go fix themselves first, then ask the wife for forgiveness and prove to her they’ve changed! Then they will deserve a 2nd chance. Although I can almost bet my life he’s promised his wife he’ll NEVER do it again at least a hundred times! They always do!

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