An investigation by the Associated Press has found that sexual abuse of children by Islamic clerics is widespread in religious schools in Pakistan, where many of the country’s poorest study.
The AP documented the cases of abuse through dozens of police reports, as well as interviews with law enforcement officials, doctors, and abuse victims and their relatives.
One victim, 8-year-old Yaous from the remote northern Kohistan region, said how the mullah at his Mansehra religious school grabbed his hand, dragged him into a room, and locked the door when other students had gone out.
The boy was held prisoner for two days and raped repeatedly until he was so sick the cleric feared he would die and took him to the hospital, AP reported, citing the boy, his relatives, and a doctor.
At the hospital, examinations by a doctor Faisal Manan Salarzai, revealed brutal and repetitive assaults. The cleric has since been arrested.
Another victim, 11-year-old Misbah from Punjab, said she was raped by a cleric who taught religious classes to young girls in the village mosque.
“He suddenly grabbed me and pulled me into a nearby room. I was screaming and shouting and crying,” the child recalled.
Misbah was rescued by her uncle, Muhammad Tanvir, who heard screaming from inside the mosque and smashed the door down, AP reported. The cleric was arrested but later released on bail.
Police officials told AP that sexual abuse of children by clerics is prevalent in Pakistan, but clerics always escape convictions, despite police reports.
Religious groups that enjoy enormous clout in Pakistan have been able to hide the widespread abuse by accusing victims of blasphemy or defamation of Islam.
Deputy Police Superintendent Sadiq Baloch, in the country's northwest, said the victims’ families are often coerced into “forgiving” clerics, fearing shame and stigma in the deeply conservative society.
There are more than 22,000 registered madrasahs in Pakistan, teaching more than 2 million children.
But there are many more unregistered religious schools that typically are run by a local mullahs in poor neighborhoods, attracting students with promises of meals and free lodging.
In Pakistan, there is no central body of clerics that governs madrasahs, nor is there a central authority that can investigate or respond to allegations of abuse by clerics.
The government of Prime Minister Imran Khan has promised to modernize the curriculum and make the madrasahs more accountable, but it has yet to be seen.