A row over a teenager girl’s religious conversion has sparked clashes in the Chitral region in north-west Pakistan.
The teenager, named as Rina, is from the Kalash minority, a tribe which worships several gods and goddesses.
She converted to Islam earlier this week, but clashes erupted on Thursday amid a row over whether she had been forced to convert, and whether she had subsequently given up Islam.
Dozens attacked her home with sticks and rocks before being dispersed.
Police were forced to fire shots into the air to break up the crowd, before taking Rina from her home in Kalash Valley to a safe place in central Chitral.
On Friday, following meetings with elders on both sides, Rina told reporters she converted to Islam of her own free will, and would move in with her Muslim relatives.
At a press conference, her family and Kalash and Muslim community leaders said the violence had erupted over a misunderstanding.
This had happened when, after converting to Islam and spending a night with a Muslim family at a religious seminary, Rina went home and put on traditional Kalash dress – consisting of a robe embroidered with cowrie shells and embroidered headgear, they said.
This had offended local Muslims who believed this meant Rina had reverted to her Kalash faith, they added.
“I wore the robe after a Muslim relative told me I was still a minor and could dress up in our traditional attire; she told me I could revert to Muslim shalwar-kameez dress once I had grown up, so I wore the dress,” Rina said.
A senior district official who requested anonymity told the BBC that Rina may or may not have stated what actually transpired but it certainly helped prevent an escalation of the violence.
“There has been no communal violence here before, so perhaps she just got scared and was probably advised by both the authorities and the local elders neither to admit to having been forced into conversion, if that were to be the case, nor to whether she actually repented and went back to her own religion, because both statements would anger the Muslims,” he said.
Although religious tolerance in Pakistan has declined as society has been increasingly Islamicised, Thursday’s violence shocked many because Kalash Valley has not experienced such clashes before.
Conversions to Islam are not uncommon among the Kalash, especially among young women who fall in love with Muslims.
“Most of these converts are school- or college-going girls who come under the influence of Islamic content in educational curricula,” said Saifur Rahman Aziz, Chief Editor of the Chitral Times.
He said this increased rate of conversions was causing problems to the Kalash community because many Kalash women who married Muslim men were subsequently divorced and ended up living with their parents.
Kalash activist Luke Rehmat told BBC that out of a total population of over 12,000 in the Kalash valley, only about 4,000 now adhered to the Kalash religion, a polytheistic faith derived from Indo-Aryan tradition.
The Kalash people
- The Kalash people migrated from current-day Afghanistan in the 2nd Century BC
- Some historians believe they are descendants of Alexander the Great’s soldiers
- The Kalash worship ancestors, as well as 12 gods and goddesses
- They celebrate four major festivals connected with the seasons and the farming year
- Many Kalash women still choose to wear the ornate and colourful traditional dress