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Pakistan News: Child sexual abuse in Pakistan’s religious schools is endemic | World News

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PAKPATTAN, Pakistan: Muhimman proudly writes his name slowly, carefully, one letter at a time, smiling broadly as he finishes. He is only 11 years old and was a good student who dreamed of becoming a doctor.
The school scares him now. Earlier this year, a cleric at the religious school he faithfully attended in the southern city of Punpat, Pakpattan, took him to a bathroom and tried to rape him. Muhimman’s aunt Shazia, who only wanted her first name used, said she believes that abuse of young children is endemic in Pakistan’s religious schools. She said she has known the cleric, Moeed Shah, since she was a child and describes him as a regular abuser who used to ask girls to roll up their shirts.
“He has done wrong with the boys and also with two or three girls,” Shazia said, reminding one girl that the clergyman mistreated so much that he broke his back.
An investigation by The Associated Press found dozens of police reports, known here as First Information Reports, alleging sexual harassment, rape, and physical abuse by Islamic clerics who teach in madrassas or religious schools across Pakistan, where many of the studies poorest in the country. The AP also documented cases of abuse through interviews with law enforcement officials, victims of abuse, and their parents. The alleged victims who spoke for this story did so with the understanding that only their names would be used.
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 not registered. Usually started by a local cleric in a poor neighborhood, he draws students in with the promise of free food and accommodation. There is no central body of clergy to rule the madrasas. Nor is there a central authority that can investigate or respond to allegations of abuse by clerics, unlike the Catholic Church, which has a clear hierarchy led by the Vatican.
Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government has promised to modernize the curriculum and make the madrasah more accountable, but there is little oversight.
Police say the problem of clergy sexual abuse of children is widespread and that the police reports they have received are just the tip of the iceberg. However, despite dozens of reports, none have resulted in the conviction of a cleric. 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.
Families in Pakistan are often forced into “ forgiving ” clerics, said deputy police superintendent Sadiq Baloch, speaking in his office in the northwest of the country, towards the border with Afghanistan.
Overcome with shame and fear that the stigma of being sexually abused will follow a child into adulthood, families choose to drop the charges, he said. More often, when a family forgives the cleric, the investigation ends because the charges are dropped.
“It is the hypocrisy of some of these mullahs, who wear the long beard and dress in the cape of piety only to do these horrible acts behind closed doors, while openly criticizing those who are shaved, who are liberal and open-minded , “Baloch said. “In our society, many of these men, who claim to be religious, are involved in these immoral activities.”
‘I WANT THIS MULLAH TO HANG UP’
Police officials say they have no idea how many children are abused by religious clerics in Pakistan. Officials said clerics often attack boys who have not yet reached puberty in part due to the restrictive nature of Pakistan’s still conservative society, where male interaction with girls and women is unacceptable. Clerics for the most part had access and trust with children, who are less likely to report sexual assault.
Eight-year-old Yaous from the remote Kohistan region of northern Pakistan is one of those boys.
Yaous’s father was a poor worker who had no education and spoke only the local language of his area, but wanted to educate his son. He had heard of a religious school in Mansehra, several hundred kilometers (south) south of his village, where other boys from the area had gone. Too poor to have a phone, his father spent months without talking to his son.
Yaous is small for his eight years. Its features are slight. In an interview with the AP, with his uncle playing, Yaous’s small body shuddered as he told him of his ordeal.
It was near the end of December last year, a public holiday at the madrasah. Most of the students were gone. Only Yaous and a handful of students had been left behind. Her town was hours away, and the cost of transportation home was too much for her parents.
The other students had gone to wash their clothes and Yaous said he was alone inside the mosque with Qari Shamsuddin, the cleric. The sexual assault was unexpected and brutal. The boy said Shamsuddin took him by the hand, dragged him into a room, and closed the door.
It was very cold. I didn’t understand why I was taking off my warm clothes, ” Yaous said, his voice barely above a whisper.
When Yaous remembered what happened, he buried his head deeper into his jacket. The cleric grabbed a stick, he said. It was small, maybe 12 inches. The first sharp claps stung.
“The pain made me scream and cry, but it didn’t stop,” Yaous said. The boy was held prisoner for two days, he was repeatedly raped until he was so ill that the cleric feared dying and took him to the hospital.
At the hospital, Dr. Faisal Manan Salarzai said Yaous screamed every time he tried to approach him. Yaous was so small and fragile that Salarzai called him the “baby”.
“The baby had a lot of bruising on the body: on the head, on the chest, on the legs, a lot of bruising on other parts of the body,” said Salarzai.
Suspicious, Salarzai ordered Yaous to move to the isolation room where he examined him, suspecting that he had been sexually assaulted. The examination revealed brutal and repetitive assaults.
But Solarzai said Yaous’s uncle refused to believe that his nephew was sexually assaulted, instead saying the boy had fallen. “He said the uncle finally said, ‘If the news spreads in our area that he has been sexually assaulted, it will be very difficult for him to survive in our area.’
“I was not willing to talk about it or think that he was sexually assaulted,” said Solarzai. But the evidence was overwhelming and the doctor contacted the police.
The cleric was arrested and is now in jail. Police have compared their DNA samples with those found in Yaous. But despite the arrest, other clerics and worshipers at the Madrassah-e-Taleem-ul-Quran mosque located in a remote region in northwestern Pakistan dispute the charges. They say that Shamsuddin is innocent, a victim of anti-Islamic elements in the country. Clerics and worshipers 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 who seek to enrage crowds to assert your power.
Yaous’s father Abdul Qayyum said he was embarrassed that he had not spoken to his son in more than three months before the attack.
“I want this mullah hanged. Nothing else will do,” Qayyum said.
‘FORGIVE ME’
Young people are not the only victims of sexual abuse by religious clergy. Many young girls like Misbah from a deeply conservative Basti Qasi village in southern Punjab have also been targeted by religious leaders.
His father, Mohammad Iqbal, is not exactly sure how old Misbah is. He thinks she is 11 years old because in rural Pakistan many births are not registered or are registered much later, and it is just a guess when children are born. They share their small concrete block structures with several goats, and one large family formed appears to be mostly children playing ball and running around the dirt complex. Misbah, who was fighting for words, said she was raped in the mosque next door, where she had been studying the Koran for three years.
The assault occurred one morning after she stayed to sweep the mosque. The other children had been sent home and the clergyman, someone he trusted, asked Misbah for help.
“ He had just started cleaning when the mosque door slammed shut, ” he said in his native Saraiki language. “ I didn’t know why and then all of a sudden he grabbed me and led me to a nearby room. I was screaming, screaming and crying. He couldn’t say how long the assault lasted. All she could remember was yelling at her father to help her, but he didn’t stop, he didn’t stop, she repeated.
It was her uncle, Mohammed Tanvir, who rescued her. He was on his way to college, but stopped at the mosque to use the bathroom. He noticed a pair of child’s shoes outside the door.
“Then I heard screaming from inside, she was screaming for her father,” said Tanvir. Breaking through the door, he saw his niece lying naked on the floor. “ He looked like he was passed out, ” he said. His pants were stained with blood in one corner and the cleric knelt at his feet.
“Forgive me,” he said to me, “Tanvir recalled. The cleric was arrested but released on bail.
‘SUCH A BEAST SHOULD NOT GET OUT’
Following Muhimman’s attempted rape, the young man who had proudly displayed his writing skills, his aunt said there was a concerted attempt to silence the family.
“The townspeople say that these are our spiritual leaders and the imams of our religious places, and they refuse to kick him out,” Shazia said.
After the attack on his nephew, he said, the villagers came to his home and pleaded with them to forgive the cleric, Moeed Shah, who had fled the area.
“Everyone came to our house and they know that we are poor and he is a magnet and they said we should forgive him, but we will not,” Shazia said. She said that her father, Muhimman’s grandfather, refused.
Shah has yet to be arrested, despite the fact that the assault was filmed by several village children who broke down the bathroom door and scared Shah as he grew tired of raping Muhimman.
Police say they are investigating and a charge has been filed, but Shah is a fugitive. Some of the neighbors near the mosque said the police are not vigorously looking for him. They seemed angry but also gave up on the fact that he would not be imprisoned.
Muhimman’s aunt was inconsolable.
“Such a beast must not be saved at all,” said Shazia.

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