[...] At least 20 to 25 former Christians adopt Islam each week by pledging an oath and signing a green and white document in which they accept Islam as "the most beautiful religion" and promise to "remain in the religion of Islam for the rest of my life, acknowledging that blessings are only from God." [...]
Last autumn, politician Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, Pakistan's most prosperous province, began to campaign on behalf of a Christian woman named Asia Bibi, who had been sentenced to death for blasphemy. On Jan. 4, with debate over the future of Pakistan's blasphemy law at a fever pitch, Taseer was gunned down by one of his personal security guards.
Public reaction to Taseer's assassination was stunning.
Pakistan's lawyers, praised just three years ago for saving this country's independent judiciary, showered Taseer's assassin with rose petals on his way into court. A rally to celebrate his death attracted 40,000 in Karachi and thousands more posted tributes to the killer on their Facebook accounts.
"To be honest, I felt good when I heard he was dead; we got rid of him," said Raghib Naeemia, an iman at Jamia Naeemia. "It's very clear in the Holy Qur'an that if you say something nasty and harsh about the Holy Prophet, then you become a maloun (cursed) person. And we are supposed to round up those people and kill them very harshly." [...]
One of the results of this wave of anti-Christian activity unfolded on a sunny afternoon this week. Azra Mustafa, a 45-year-old housemaid, shuffled into the Jamia Naeemia and asked to speak to an imam. A recent convert to Islam, the housemaid and mother of six needed to get the proper documents to prove to her neighbours that she was no longer a Christian.
"It feels great," she said. "I moved to a Muslim neighbourhood and now I feel like we are one family."
Each day, Mustafa, whose husband remains Christian and now lives separately from his wife and children, wakes up to attend 5 a.m. prayers before she leaves for work four hours later. By the time she returns home at 7 p.m. from a job that pays her 2,500 rupees ($28) a month, darkness has fallen over her one-room home. After dinner, a teacher comes to her home to give Mustafa and her children 90-minute lessons on Arabic and the Qur'an.
Asked if she felt safer in the wake of her conversion, Mustafa replied, "of course."
Mustafa sat patiently as the seminary's staff and students hustled about, preparing to attend a rally scheduled for later that afternoon -- a protest that featured at least 3,000 people who at one point chanted "death to Christians and the friends of Christians" as they marched through the heart of Lahore.
As Mustafa gathered her papers together and prepared to leave, Parvaiz Masih, a 23-year-old auto rickshaw diver, walked into the office. He hoped to convert that afternoon, and had already told friends he would now be known as Muhammad Parvaiz.
"I've been thinking about it for two or three years," he said, wrapped in a heavy blue shawl. "About four days ago, I decided to do it."
A group of a dozen young men studied Parvaiz and a visitor asked if Taseer's murder and other publicized clashes involving Christians had played a role in his decision. Parvaiz shrugged meekly and wouldn't answer.
It wasn't long before another Christian, 26-year-old Naseer, entered Jamia Naeemia. With a crowd of men looking on, she, too, was hesitant to elaborate on why she wanted to follow Islam, but nodded when she was asked whether she believed she would be safer as a Muslim.
Adjusting a pin on the saffron-coloured dupatta that covered her face, Naseer said she had slipped away from her parents' home earlier in the day to make her way to the seminary. When another visitor asked again whether her personal safety played a role in her decision, Nasreen flashed a look of anger and snapped, "there's no question."
It was clear why Naseer and others were hesitant to speak more freely about their concerns over safety. An iman for the madrassa said he would not proceed if someone gave safety as a reason for their conversion.
Peter Jacob, executive director of an advocacy organization funded by the Catholic Church, said an average of 400 Christians annually converted to Islam between 2005 and 2010. In 2011, he expects that number to swell. "It's going to be very different in these hostile conditions," Jacob said. "People have no faith in the police or justice system and the kind of fear that exists now was never there before."...