It is tragic enough to hear of discrimination and abuse of people based only on their world view and belief system, but it is particularly heinous to see such abuse being perpetrated against young girls.
In Pakistan it has been common to hear of girls from religious minorities such as Christian or Hindu, being abducted, forced into marriage and “converted” to Islam. But it seems as though Pakistanis of conscience have had enough and are starting to work against these practices.
Forced marriages and forced conversions in Pakistan
The Report on Forced Marriages and Forced Conversions in the Christian Community of Pakistan (first published in 2014) gives a very comprehensive overview of the difficulties that Christians, and other minority groups, encounter in Pakistani Muslim society. It estimates that up to 1000 religious-minority girls are victims of forced conversions and forced marriages every year. The number consists of up to 300 Hindus and up to 700 Christians.
The girls are usually between 12 and 25 years of age. Some are abducted from their families, but some girls and parents are groomed until they believe that the only way for the girl to escape poverty and persecution is by converting to Islam and marrying a Muslim man.
The abductions seem to follow a pattern: The victim’s family usually files a report with the local police station for abduction or rape. The abductor, on behalf of the girl victim, files a counter claim, accusing the Christian family of harassing the willfully converted and married girl, and for conspiring to convert the girl back to Christianity.
In the courts or before a magistrate, the victim girl is asked to testify whether she converted and married of her own free will or whether she was abducted. The problem is the girl usually remains in the custody of the abductor during this process. When the girl states that she willfully converted and married, the case is settled without relief for the family.
Once in the custody of the abductor, the girl may then be subject to sexual violence, rape, forced prostitution, human trafficking and sale, or other domestic abuse.
The law becomes complicit in many ways in providing immunity for the perpetrators. The laws concerning conversion and marriage are interpreted, not as specified in law, but in terms of Islam.
For example, conversions are accepted without question and within Muslim ideology it is commendable to bring about a conversion to Islam. Only one-way conversions to Islam are allowed and challenges are discounted, even though the law allows conversion from Islam to another faith.
Officials, instead of investigating claims of coercion, fall back on biased religious or social attitudes in administering justice. A lack of diligence by the courts means the alleged criminal is favoured. Minority groups therefore have no trust in the judicial system.
These situations occur even though Pakistan is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that no one shall be subject to coercion to change their religion.
The report concludes with recommendations to the government of Pakistan, the government of Punjab and the Supreme Court and Law Ministry, regarding correct application of personal laws and ensuring protection of minorities.
Some Pakistanis are growing a conscience!
Arzoo Raja is a 13 year old Christian girl who was abducted, forcibly converted and then married to her Muslim abductor.
This raised a strong protest reaction through social media. On 24 October Christians, Hindus and Muslims rallied together outside the Karachi Press Club in a protest led by the 'National Peace Committee Interfaith Harmony'. They called for Arzoo to be returned to her family and for an end to what is nothing other than human trafficking across religious lines.
The High Court validated the marriage on 28 October after rejecting proof-of-age documents submitted by her parents (child marriage is illegal in Pakistan, but acceptable under Muslim ideology). It also accepted a certificate of religious conversion (not hard to obtain from a fundamentalist mosque) without any regard that the testimony was made under duress. On 2 November the High Court had relented and police have rescued Arzoo and arrested her abductor.
The case will return to court and hopefully set in motion a process to improve religious freedom and security for Pakistan’s long-persecuted religious minorities. These injustices bring shame and disgrace to the nation.
Our prayers are needed
Praise God for the protests that have caused the High Court to turn around its decision about Arzoo.
Praise God also that Maira Shabaz (about whom I wrote in a previous article) has since escaped and is currently in hiding with her mother and siblings. Pray for continued protection for Arzoo, Maira and other Christian and Hindu girls and their families, who risk Islamist retribution for challenging the Islamists and demanding justice.
Pray for courageous Christian lawyer Tabassum Yousaf who represents Arzoo’s family, as well as family of some other girls, in the High Court of Sindh. Pray also for every courageous lawyer, activist, journalist and politician prepared to risk Islamist retribution by challenging the Islamists, insisting on justice, and demanding an end to shameful persecution.
Pray for the Lord to stir up indignation among Pakistanis of conscience; may Pakistan's moral crisis be redeemed for the awakening of many!
Let us use Psalm 57 as a prayer for these girls and their families, substituting “them”, “they”, “their” instead of “me” and “my”.
Aira Chilcott is a retired secondary school teacher with lots of science andtheology under her belt. Aira is an editor for PSI and indulges inreading, bushwalking and volunteering at a nature reserve. Aira’s husband Bill passed away in 2022 and she is left with three wonderful adult sons and one grandson.
Aira Chilcott's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/aira-chilcott.html