Case of forced conversion, abuse of minor Christian girl debunked

How a pastor’s plea for medical help was misrepresented as a false case of forced conversion.

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Claim: Unidentified men gang-raped a minor girl from the Christian community in Faisalabad after she refused to convert to Islam. They also tortured her and cut her hair.

Fact: The minor Chrisitan girl in question was neither sexually abused nor forced to convert to Islam. However, she has an undiagnosed ailment that led a pastor at Lahore’s Word of Life Church to post pictures of her on Facebook in order to request help. These photos went viral on social media, with captions claiming she was assaulted and asked to renounce her religion.

Late last month, social media was abuzz with claims that a teenage Christian girl in Faisalabad was violently sexually assaulted and asked to convert to Islam during the gang rape. News reports and posts on social media included pictures of a young girl dressed in a green kameez and black dupatta. Reports also asserted that the attackers forcibly cut the girl’s hair, as the pictures showed her with patchy and uneven hair.

Soch Fact Check found that the reports originated from a post on Facebook but crossed platforms to Twitter, Instagram, and WhatsApp. The claims were also shared by a number of celebrities and social media influencers who expressed concern for the girl’s wellbeing.

#JusticeForSunitaMasih soon became one of the most popular hashtags on Twitter, with different variations of her name, such as Suneeta and Maseeh. According to Twitter analytics aggregator Social Bearing, the hashtag appears to have first been used on 24 May and has reached over 6 million people in the eight days following 26 May.

A Google Reverse Image Search reveals that the girl’s picture first appeared online a week ago.

To investigate these claims, Soch Fact Check spoke to Father Asif Feroze, a pastor at the Word of Life Church in Lahore. This church runs the Mission School System, where the child in the viral image studies.

“This girl is a student at my school,” the pastor said, and “nothing of this sort happened” to her. Someone attempted to exacerbate tensions between two communities, he added, noting that the child’s name is not Sunita Masih either.

“I had put up a post stating that the girl’s hair falls off every year, asking for help and prayers that she’s able to recover from this illness,” Feroze told Soch Fact Check. He added that health professionals have not yet been able to diagnose her ailment.

“She’s 16 and has been [studying] with me since Class 1 and she’s now in ‘pre-ninth’. It’s been 15 days since her father died, and her mother passed away a month ago. She’s an orphan,” he said.

The pastor explained that he wishes to “have her treated at the best possible [medical facility]”, which is why he originally posted on Facebook.

Soch Fact Check verified the existence of Father Feroze’s Facebook post, published on 21 May, three days before the hashtag #JusticeforSunitaMasih first appeared on Twitter.

He added that someone from his friend’s list on Facebook used the picture from his post — in which “[he is] standing there with [his] own daughter and the child in the centre” — and shared it with a false caption. The photo then went viral on social media. “It’s tragic that she’s been subjected to this horror.”

The pastor also told Soch Fact Check that he approached the Federal Investigation Agency’s (FIA) Cybercrime Wing and filed a complaint on 29 May. Moreover, the pastor has shared an eight-minute video on YouTube detailing what has transpired so far.

A Dawn article also cites multiple police officials from Sukkur and Faisalabad who say they did not receive reports of such an incident in their respective cities.

Background on forced conversions in Pakistan

In recent years, human rights groups have reported on a number of underage girls—and sometimes boys—from religious minority communities in Pakistan being kidnapped, sexually assaulted, and/or forced to convert to Islam. According to the Human Rights Watch’s 2019 report, the Movement for Solidarity and Peace found that at least 1,000 girls belonging to minority communities are forced to marry Muslim men every year. The Aurat Foundation corroborates this number. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has also expressed concern about this issue in multiple reports available on their website.

The latest development in Pakistan’s issue of forced conversions came earlier this year when the Senate Standing Committee on Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony in February 2021 “turned down” the proposed Protection of the Rights of Religious Minorities Act, 2020.

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