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The Hindus performed the prayer rituals awkwardly in supplication to their new, single god, as they prepared to leave their many deities behind them. Their lips stumbled over Arabic phrases that, once recited, would seal their conversion to Islam. The last words uttered, the men and boys were then circumcised.

Dozens of Hindu families converted in June in the Badin district of Sindh province in southern Pakistan. Video clips of the ceremony went viral across the country, delighting hard-line Muslims and weighing on Pakistan's dwindling Hindu minority.

The mass ceremony was the latest in what is a growing number of such conversions to Pakistan's majority Muslim faith in recent years -- although precise data are scarce. Some of these conversions are voluntary, some not.

News outlets in India, Pakistan's majority-Hindu neighbor and arch rival, were quick to denounce the conversions as forced. But what is happening is more subtle. Desperation, religious and political leaders on both sides of the debate say, has often been the driving force behind their change of religion.

Treated as second-class citizens, the Hindus of Pakistan are often systemically discriminated against in every walk of life -- housing, jobs, access to government welfare. While minorities have long been drawn to convert in order to join the majority and escape discrimination and sectarian violence, Hindu community leaders say that the recent increase in conversions has also been motivated by newfound economic pressures.

"What we are seeking is social status, nothing else," said Muhammad Aslam Sheikh, whose name was Sawan Bheel until June, when he converted in Badin with his family. The ceremony in Badin was notable for its size, involving just over 100 people.

"These conversions," he added, "are becoming very common in poor Hindu communities."

Proselytizing Muslim clerics and charity groups add to the faith's allure, offering incentives of jobs or land to impoverished minority members, but only if they convert.

With Pakistan's economy on the brink of collapse in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the pressures on the country's minorities, often its poorest people, have increased. The economy will contract by 1.3% in the 2020 fiscal year because of the pandemic, the World Bank predicts. Up to 18 million of Pakistan's 74 million jobs could be lost.

Sheikh and his family hope to find financial support from wealthy Muslims or from Islamic charities that have cropped up in recent years, which focus on drawing more people to Islam.

"There is nothing wrong with that," Sheikh said. "Everyone helps the people of their faith."

As Sheikh sees it, there is nothing left for Pakistan's more affluent Hindus to give to help the people of their own faith. That is because there are so few Hindus left.

At independence in 1947, Hindus composed 20.5% of the population of the areas that now form Pakistan. In the following decades, the percentage shrank rapidly, and by 1998 -- the last government census to classify people by religion -- Hindus were just 1.6% of Pakistan's population. Most estimates say it has further dwindled in the past two decades.

Once a melting pot of religions, Sindh province, where the conversion ceremony took place, has seen minority members flee to other countries in droves in recent decades. Many face harsh discrimination, as well as the specter of violence -- and the risk of being accused of blasphemy, a capital crime -- if they speak out against it.

"The dehumanization of minorities coupled with these very scary times we are living in -- a weak economy and now the pandemic -- we may see a raft of people converting to Islam to stave off violence or hunger or just to live to see another day," said Farahnaz Ispahani, a former Pakistani lawmaker who is now a senior fellow at the Religious Freedom Institute, a research group in Washington.

Forced conversions of Hindu girls and women to Islam through kidnapping and coerced marriages occur throughout Pakistan. But Hindu rights groups are also troubled by the seemingly voluntary conversions, saying they take place under such economic duress that they are tantamount to a forced conversion anyway.

"Overall, religious minorities do not feel safe in Pakistan," said Lal Chand Mahli, a Pakistani Hindu lawmaker with the ruling party, who is a member of a parliamentary committee to protect minorities from forced conversions. "But poor Hindus are the most vulnerable among them. They are extremely poor and illiterate, and Muslim mosques, charities and traders exploit them easily and lure them to convert to Islam. A lot of money is involved in it."

Clerics like Muhammad Naeem were at the forefront of an effort to convert more Hindus. (Naeem, who was 62, died of cardiac arrest two weeks after he was interviewed in June.)

Naeem said he had overseen more than 450 conversions over the past two years at Jamia Binoria, his seminary in Karachi. Most of the converts were low-caste Hindus from Sindh, he said.

"We have not been forcing them to convert," Naeem said. "In fact, people come to us because they want to escape discrimination attached with their caste and change their socioeconomic status."

Demand was so great, he added, that his seminary had set up a separate department to guide the new converts and provide counsel in legal or financial matters.

On a recent afternoon, the call to prayer echoed through a cluster of newly erected tents in Matli, a barren patch of Sindh. A group of Karachi's wealthy Muslim merchants bought the land last year for dozens of families who had converted from Hinduism.

At a new mosque adjacent to the tents, Muhammad Ali -- who was known by his Hindu name, Rajesh, before converting last year alongside 205 others -- performed ablutions before praying.

Last year, his entire family had decided to convert to Islam when Naeem, the cleric, offered to free them from the bonded labor in which they were trapped, living and working as indentured servants because of unpaid debt. Ali is originally from the Bheel caste, one of the lowest in Hinduism.

"We have found a sense of equality and brotherhood in Islam, and therefore we converted to it," Ali said.


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