AN investigation by The Associated Press has uncovered dozens of police reports alleging sexual harassment, rape and physical abuse by Islamic clerics teaching in madrassas or religious schools throughout Pakistan
The AP also documented cases of abuse through interviews with law enforcement officials, abuse victims and their parents.
There are more than 22,000 registered madrassas in Pakistan, teaching more than 2 million children. But there are many more religious schools that are unregistered.
They are typically started by a local cleric in a poor neighborhood, attracting students with a promise of a meal and free lodging. There is no central body of clerics that governs madrassas. Nor is there a central authority that can investigate or respond to allegations of abuse by clerics.
Police say the problem of sexual abuse of children by clerics is pervasive and the scores of police reports they have received are just the tip of the iceberg.
Religious clerics are a powerful group in Pakistan and they close ranks when allegations of abuse are brought against one of them. They have been able to hide the widespread abuse by accusing victims of blasphemy or defamation of Islam.
Overcome by shame and fear that the stigma of being sexually abused will follow a child into adulthood, families choose instead to drop the charges. Most often, when a family forgives the cleric the investigation ends because the charges are dropped.
Families are often coerced into “forgiving” clerics, said Deputy Police Superintendent Sadiq Baloch, speaking in his office in the country’s northwest, toward the border with Afghanistan. He said:
It is the hypocrisy of some of these mullahs, who wear the long beard and take on the cloak of piety only to do these horrible acts behind closed doors, while openly they criticize those who are clean shaven, who are liberal and open minded. In our society so many of these men, who say they are religious, are involved in these immoral activities.
Police officials say they have no idea how many children are abused by religious clerics in Pakistan. The officials said clerics often target young boys who have not yet reached puberty in part because of the restrictive nature of Pakistan’s still mostly conservative society, where male interaction with girls and women is unacceptable. The clerics for the most part had access to and trust with boys, who are less likely to report a sexual assault.
Eight-year-old Yaous from Pakistan’s remote northern Kohistan region is one of those boys who claims that he was sexually assaulted in a mosque by cleric Qari Shamsuddin, who beat the boy with a stick, then held him prisoner for two days, during which time he was repeatedly raped.
The boy was was so badly injured that he had to be hospitalised. A medic – Dr Faisal Manan Salarzai – ascertained that he had been sexually assaulted and told Yaous’ uncle, who refused to believe that frail child, small for his age, had been raped. He told the doctor:
If news spreads in our area that he has been sexually assaulted it will be very difficult for him to survive in our area.
He was not willing to talk about it or even think that he was sexually assaulted.
But the evidence was overwhelming and the doctor contacted the police. The cleric was arrested and is now in jail. But despite the arrest, fellow clerics and worshippers at the Madrassah-e-Taleem-ul-Quran mosque located in a remote region of northwest Pakistan dispute the charges. They say Shamsuddin is innocent, the victim of anti-Islamic elements in the country.
The clerics and worshippers also say the accusation is part of a conspiracy to discredit Pakistan’s religious leaders and challenge the supremacy of Islam, a rallying cry often used by right-wing religious clerics seeking to enrage mobs to assert their power.
Yaous’ father, Abdul Qayyum, said he was ashamed he had not spoken to his son in more than three months before the attack happened.
I want this mullah hanged. Nothing else will do.
Young boys are not the only victims of sexual abuse by clerics. Many young girls like Misbah have also been targeted by religious leaders. Said she was raped in the mosque next door to her home where she had been studying the Quran for three years.
The assault happened one morning after she stayed behind to sweep the mosque. The other children had been sent home and the cleric, someone she trusted, asked Misbah to help.
I had just began to clean when he slammed shut the mosque door. I didn’t know why and then he suddenly grabbed me and pulled me into a nearby room. I was screaming and shouting and crying.
She couldn’t say how long the assault went on. All she could remember was screaming for her father to help her but he wouldn’t stop.
It was her uncle, Mohammed Tanvir, who rescued her. He had been on his way to college but stopped at the mosque to use the washroom. He noticed a pair of child’s shoes outside the door.
Then I heard screaming from inside, she was screaming for her father.
He smashed the door down saw his niece sprawled and naked on the floor. “It looked as if she had fainted,” he said. Her blood-stained pants were in a corner. The cleric knelt at his feet.
“‘Forgive me’ he kept saying to me,’” Tanvir recalled. The cleric was arrested but freed on bail.