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Compass Direct (06/23/06) – Attacked by her own family, one Muslim’s decision to convert to Christianity highlights the precarious situation of Muslims in Pakistan who leave their faith.

Sehar Muhammad Shafi, 24, has fled her home city of Karachi with her husband and two young daughters after being attacked and raped for changing her faith.

With help from the Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement, the Christian couple has relocated to another city. But as long as Shafi and her family remain in Pakistan , they must hide the truth of Shafi’s conversion.

Shafi was born the fourth child of a Muslim proselytizer in Pakistan ’s largest city, Karachi . Her family belonged to Ahle Sunnat wa-al Jimmat, a non-violent Muslim group that focused on converting non-Muslims. Members were instructed not to share food and eating utensils with “pagans” considered unclean.

Shafi’s father taught fellow members of his religious community how to proselytize. As a teenager, Shafi often attended her father’s training sessions on how to convert non-Muslims.

“It wasn’t normal for a girl to participate in those sessions,” the young woman told Compass. “But I was the daughter of an ‘evangelist’ and was eager to bring others to my faith.”

In 1999, Shafi began work for a medical company, Glaxo Wellcome plc, where she focused her energy on proselytizing a co-worker, a Christian named Naveed Paul. Paul had an interest in apologetics and engaged Shafi in religious discussions, inviting her to church with him.

Four years later, Shafi decided to become a Christian, and a local pastor secretly baptized her. “I had shared Islam with [Paul] and wanted to convert him, but instead I realized that my life was empty without Jesus,” Shafi said.

Secret Marriage

Shafi’s family was not aware of her conversion, but sometimes they would beat her when they found her singing Psalms to herself. Once they ripped up a Bible they discovered her reading.

In January 2004, Shafi and Paul were secretly married and broke all ties with Shafi’s Muslim family. After the birth of their daughter, Angela Rose, in January 2005, Shafi contacted her parents and told them that she had married a Christian man.

One Sunday evening a month later, a large mob attacked the convert’s home. Shafi said that she and her family barely escaped with their lives out the back door of their apartment. The young woman said she believes that her family had discovered her location and organized the attack.

Resettling elsewhere in Karachi , the convert called her parents from a local pay phone and asked them to stop harassing her. After hanging up, Shafi’s parents called back to the phone booth owner and explained that their daughter had converted to Christianity.

The booth owner, whom Shafi only knew as Rana, followed the Christian woman to her home and then informed her parents of her whereabouts. Later that night, while Paul had gone out to check his e-mail at an internet café, Rana forced his way into Shafi’s home.

The phone booth owner told Shafi that he was going to punish her for committing the “unpardonable sin” of “apostasy” and raped her at gunpoint.

“I was terrified,” the young woman told Compass.

When Paul returned home, he and his family immediately fled, hoping to avoid another attack from Shafi’s family.

The couple initially sought shelter with Paul’s relatives and later with a group of nuns. Paul’s relatives soon asked the couple to leave, fearing that they would be targeted for hosting a convert.

The Christian couple stayed with the nuns for eight months but was eventually forced to flee after one of the sisters treated them badly and informed the Muslim community that Shafi was a convert.

Paul and Shafi tried to leave the country but were denied foreign visas.

This past April, Shafi and Paul, with 18-month-old Angela Rose and 6-month-old daughter Magdalene, secretly fled to another Pakistani city, where they are trying to start life over. But Shafi told Compass that her family continues to live with the fear of being discovered.

“My husband is keen to get a marketing job,” Shafi commented. “But I don’t want him to do something that open, where he will be known.”

Though returning to Islam would seemingly solve many of Shafi’s problems, the Christian woman said that leaving her new-found faith is not an option.

“It is not a joke to change religions,” she said. “We’ve fallen in love with Jesus, so how could we betray him?”

Religious Double Standard

Though Pakistani law does not outlaw conversion from Islam to another religion, those who leave the Muslim faith are often harassed by police and relatives.

Pakistani Muslims often cut all ties with a family member who converts to another religion. “Apostates” – those who renounce Islam – can experience difficulty finding a job, and they may even face torture and death at the hands of vigilante extremists.

For veteran Pakistani human rights activist I.A. Rehman, most religious freedom violations in Pakistan stem from the religious orientation of the state.

After coming to power in 1977, military general Zia Ul-Haq based Pakistan ’s legal system on Islamic law.

According to Rehman, director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, many Pakistani Muslims view leaving Islam – “apostasy” – as a form of blasphemy, a crime that merits either life imprisonment or death under Pakistani law.

Thus, though Pakistani law does now outlaw conversion from Islam to another faith, in effect “changing religion is not a constitutional right,” Rehman said. “Every non-Muslim is welcome to change his religion, but on the other hand a Muslim cannot change his faith.”

During recent debate surrounding the trial of Abdul Rahman, a Muslim convert to Christianity in Afghanistan , Pakistani clerics reinforced their stance that “apostates” be punished with death.

“ Pakistan ’s top cleric, Mufti Munib ur Rehman, announced that ‘if a state is truly Islamic,’ it would have to kill the apostate,” Pakistani newspaper Daily Times reported in a March 29 editorial.