PAKPATTAN, Pakistan – Muhimman proudly wrote his name slowly, carefully, one letter at a time, grinning widely when he finished. He was only 11 years old and a good student who had a dream of being a doctor.
School scares him now. Earlier this year, a cleric at a religious school he attended faithfully in the city of Pakpattan, southern Punjab, took him to the bathroom and tried to rape him. Muhimman’s aunt Shazia, who only wanted her first name to be used, said she believed child abuse was endemic in Pakistan’s religious schools. He said that he had known the cleric, Moeed Shah, because he was a little girl and described her as a habitual habit who used to ask little girls to pull their clothes.
“He made a mistake with a boy and also with two or three girls,” Shazia said, remembering a girl cleric who was so brutal that she broke her back.
Investigations by the Associated Press found dozens of police reports, known here as the First Information Report, accusing sexual harassment, rape and physical abuse by Islamic scholars who teach in madrassas or religious schools throughout Pakistan, where many of the poorest studies in the country. Harassment cases are also documented 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 first names would be used.
There are more than 22,000 madrassas registered in Pakistan, teaching more than 2 million children. But there are many religious schools that are not registered. They are usually started by a local cleric in a poor neighborhood, attracting students with free food and lodging appointments. There is no central ulama body that regulates madrassas. Nor is there a central authority that can investigate or respond to allegations of harassment by clerics, unlike the Catholic Church, which has a clear hierarchy over it by the Vatican.
Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government has promised to modernize the curriculum and make madrassas more responsible, but there is little oversight.
Police said the problem of sexual abuse of children by clerics had spread and a number of police reports they received were only the tip of the iceberg. But apart from dozens of reports, none of them produced the ulama’s conviction. Religious clerics are a powerful group in Pakistan and they close ranks when allegations of abuse are brought against one of them. They were able to hide widespread harassment by accusing victims of blasphemy or blasphemy to Islam.
Families in Pakistan are often forced into “forgiving” clerics, said Deputy Police Chief Sadiq Baloch, speaking in his office in the northwest of the country, heading for the border with Afghanistan.
Overcome by shame and fear that the stigma of sexual abuse would follow a child into adulthood, the family chose to drop the charges, he said. Most often, when a family forgives the clerics the investigation ends because the charges are dropped.
“The hypocrisy of some of these mullahs, who wear long beards and wear robes of piety only to commit horrific acts behind closed doors, while openly criticizing those who are shaved clean, liberal and open-minded,” Baloch said. “In our society so many of these people, who say they are religious, are involved in this immoral activity.”
“I want this mullah to be hanged”
Police officials said they did not know how many children were abused by clerics in Pakistan. Officials say clerics often target young boys who have not yet reached puberty in part because of the restrictive nature of Pakistani society which is still largely conservative, where interaction between men and girls and women is not acceptable. Most scholars have access to and trust with boys, who tend to report sexual violence.
Eight-year-old Yaous from Pakistan’s remote northern region of Kohistan is one of them.
Yaous’s father was a poor worker who had no education and only spoke local languages in his area, but he wanted to educate his son. He had heard about a religious school in Mansehra, a few hundred kilometers south of his village, where other boys from the area had left. Too poor to have a telephone, his father left for months without talking to his son.
Yaous was small for eight years. Its features are few. In an interview, with his uncle interpreting, Yaous’s petite body shivered as he related his trials.
It was nearing the end of December last year – a vacation at the madrasa. Most of the students have left. Only Yaous and a few students remained. His village is a few hours away, and the cost of transportation home is too much for his parents.
Other students have gone to wash their clothes and Yaous said he was alone in the mosque with Qari Shamsuddin, a cleric. The sexual assault was unexpected and brutal. The boy said Shamsuddin took his hand, dragged him to a room and locked the door.
“That’s very cold. I don’t understand why he took off my warm clothes, “Yaous said, his voice almost whispering.
When Yaous remembered what had happened, he buried his head deeper into his jacket. The cleric took a stick, he said. It’s small, maybe about 12 inches. The first few sharp slaps sting.
“The pain makes me scream and cry, but he won’t stop,” Yaous said. The boy was detained for two days, raped repeatedly until he became ill, the cleric was afraid of death and took him to the hospital.
At the hospital, Dr. Faisal Manan Salarzai said Yaous shouted every time he tried to approach him. Yaous was very small and looked weak, Salarzai called him “baby.”
“The baby had many bruises on his body – on his head, on his chest, on his legs, so many bruises on other parts of his body,” Salarzai said.
Suspiciously, Salarzai ordered Yaous to move to the isolation ward where he was examining him, suspecting he had been sexually abused. The examination revealed brutal and repetitive attacks.
But Solarzai said uncle Yaous refused to believe that his nephew was sexually abused, instead he said the boy had fallen. “He said his uncle finally said: ‘If news spreads in our area that he has been sexually abused, it will be very difficult for him to survive in our area.’
“He did not want to talk about it or even think that he was being sexually abused,” Solarzai said. But the evidence is overwhelming and doctors contact the police.
The cleric was arrested and is now in prison. Police have matched DNA samples with those found at Yaous. But despite the arrest, fellow clerics and worshipers at the Madrassah-e-Taleem-ul-Quran mosque, located in a remote area of northwestern Pakistan, denied the allegations. They say Shamsuddin is innocent, a victim of anti-Islamic elements in the country. Ulema and worshipers also said the accusations were part of a conspiracy to discredit Pakistani religious leaders and challenge the supremacy of Islam, a call often used by right-wing clerics who are trying to infuriate mobs to assert their strength.
Yaous’s father, Abdul Qayyum, said he was ashamed he had not spoken to his son more than three months before the attack.
“I want this mullah to be hanged. Nothing else can be done,” said Qayyum.
Young boys are not the only victims of sexual harassment by religious clerics. Many young girls like Misbah, who are from the very conservative village of Basti Qasi in southern Punjab, are also targeted by religious leaders.
His father, Mohammad Iqbal, did not know exactly how old Misbah was. He thought he was 11 years old because in rural Pakistan many births were unregistered or registered much later, and that was only guessed when children were born. They share the structure of their little cinderblock with several goats and large families making the most of the children who play tags and run around the land. Misbah, who fought for words, said she was raped in the mosque next door, where she had studied the Koran for three years.
The attack occurred one morning after he stayed behind to sweep the mosque. Other children have been sent home and the cleric, someone he trusts, asks Misbah to help.
“I just started cleaning when he slammed the mosque door shut,” he said in his native Saraiki language. “I don’t know why and then he suddenly pulled me and pulled me to the nearest room. I screamed, screamed and cried. He couldn’t say how long the attack lasted. All he could remember was screaming for his father to help him but he wouldn’t stop, he won’t stop, he repeated.
His uncle, Mohammed Tanvir, saved him. He was on his way to college but stopped at the mosque to use the restroom. He noticed a pair of children’s shoes outside the door.
“Then I heard a scream from inside, he shouted for his father,” Tanvir said. He broke down the door and saw his nephew lying and naked on the floor. “He seems to have fainted,” he said. His blood stained pants are in the corner. The cleric knelt at his feet.
“‘I’m sorry’ he kept saying to me,” recalls Tanvir. The cleric was arrested but released on bail.
‘Wild animals like that shouldn’t be spared’
After Muhimman’s rape attempt, a boy who proudly showed his writing skills, his aunt said there had been a concerted effort to silence the family.
“The villagers say these are our spiritual leaders and priests in our religious places, and refuse to expel them,” Shazia said
After the attack on his nephew, he said, villagers came to their homes and begged them to forgive the cleric, Moeed Shah, who had fled the area.
“They all came to our house and they knew we were poor and he was a priest and they said we must forgive him but we would not do it,” Shazia said. He said his father, Muhimman’s grandfather, refused.
Shah has not yet been arrested, although the attack was filmed by several village boys who broke down the bathroom door and scared him when he was tired of raping Muhimman.
Police said they were investigating and accusations had been made, but Shah was a fugitive. Some neighbors near the mosque said police did not search hard for him. They looked angry but also resigned to the fact that he would not be jailed.
His aunt Muhimman could not be entertained.
“Wild animals like that should not be avoided at all,” Shazia said.