Muslim-majority Pakistan has seen its Hindu population dwindle to the extent where Hindus still in the country see themselves as a “forgotten community,” according to a human rights campaigner.

Their decline to less than 2 percent of the population from 20 percent since Pakistan’s independence in 1947 is a reaction to “religious intolerance” and “class disparities,” said Haroon Sarab Diyal, chair of the All Pakistan Hindu Rights Movement, an organization that promotes rights of the Hindu community.

He spoke on Sept. 17 at a public hearing on the rights of religious minorities in Pakistan, organized by the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Geneva.

Hindus in Pakistan, who happen to be from the less privileged economic strata of society, are more vulnerable to discrimination, both from unjust laws and abuse of state policies, as well as through social behaviors. “Keeping ourselves safe and voicing the demands of our community is not easy,” said Sarab Diyal.

Sarab Diyal comes from Peshawar, the capital of mountainous Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in Pakistan bordering Afghanistan, where non-Muslims are few in numbers and the presence of religious extremist groups is strongly felt.

“Many Hindus are forced to pay regular sums, as a type of ransom to extortionists and local leaders in exchange for the physical security of their families,” he said. “Another issue that concerns us today is the molestation and abduction of Hindu girls, forced conversion and forced marriages.”

Recently there have been several cases of “forced conversions” in Pakistan where Hindu girls were forced to marry influential Muslim men and subsequently asked to change their religion.

Among these was the case of 19-year-old Rinkal Kumari, who was forced to marry a feudal leader of Mirpur Mathelo town in Sindh. The incident was soundly condemned by the religious minorities and civil society groups in the country.

“There is hardly any support given to Hindu women and youth in Pakistan,” Sarab Diyal observed. “Within our community we don’t have any programs for women’s empowerment. We also feel that we do not get any support from the international community despite the grave issues of discrimination we face on a daily basis.”

For Sarab Diyal, having an opportunity to express his concerns in a public hearing with Christian, Muslims and secular representatives in Geneva was unique. “I am grateful to the WCC for this platform, where among other religious minorities we could discuss our problems and communicate the issue with the international community,” he said.

“While we go back home and work for our communities, their safety and their better future, we anticipate support and solidarity from the churches as well,” Sarab Diyal concluded.

The issues of forced conversions and marriages in Pakistan were discussed at the recent WCC Central Committee meeting in Greece in September. At the meeting a statement was issued urging the Pakistani government to ensure adequate protection of women from the religious minority communities.

Naveen Qayyum is a staff writer for the WCC.