In Pakistan, Christians make up about two percent of the population. Their fundamental rights are often violated by the Muslim majority. Young girls are often the targets of kidnappings, conversions, and forced marriages. A new case has rocked the country.
Arzoo Raja is 13 years old, she lives in Karachi. On the morning of October 13, 2020, Ali Azhar, 44, kidnapped the child: the young Catholic born on July 31, 2007, until now in fifth grade, has seen her fate change. She has joined the grim cohort of a thousand young girls, Christian and Hindu, kidnapped every year in Pakistan, forced to marry a man they don’t love, and to embrace a religion they don’t want: Islam.
At first, the police from the local police station reacted as usual: they did not follow up. The day after the kidnapping, moreover, the kidnapper’s lawyer had the audacity to appear at the police station with a document he claimed to be signed by Arzoo Raja, attesting to her free will to convert to Islam and get married. The conversion and marriage certificates provided to law enforcement were sufficient to close the case.
No matter how much Arzoo’s parents presented their daughter’s birth certificate, recalled the law in force in Sindh province - dating from 2013 - prohibiting marriage before 18, nothing helped. According to Sharia, such unions are, however, possible. However, the courts of first instance regularly apply Sharia law.
“The increase in the number of kidnappings and forced conversions of Christian and Hindu teenage girls is a very serious phenomenon,” said Anthony Naveed, Catholic deputy in the provincial assembly of Sindh, contacted by Fides.
Nevertheless, a strong mobilization of Catholics, associations, and even some Muslims is being organized. This is a new phenomenon, as families usually do not report these forced kidnappings for fear of reprisals.
But a small ray of hope can be seen for these young girls. Indeed, the site InfoChrétienne.com, on July 22, 2020, reported a case - perhaps the first - where a young kidnapped girl was recognized as a minor, which, according to Pakistani law, renders the marriage void.
Huma Younus, 14, was kidnapped, raped, then forced to convert to Islam and finally forcibly married at the age of 14, in October 2019. The East Karachi Court of First Instance, had declared the marriage valid in the name of Sharia.
However, the High Court of Sindh in Karachi, ruled on July 20, 2020, that proof of the girl’s minority had been provided, and that the marriage was therefore void. In addition, it ordered the arrest of the kidnapper and his accomplices.
This little miracle happened again for little Arzoo Raja. It was again the High Court of Sindh that ruled on October 30 that the child should be separated from her captor and put in a safe place, during a new investigation. The court also ordered the arrest of the culprit, on suspicion of perjury and marriage to a minor.
But there is still a long way to go: in 2016, the Pakistan Parliament refused to discuss a law, passed by the Senate, proposing to extend to the whole country the ban on marriage under 18 to fight against forced marriages - 21 % of girls are forced to marry before 18 years old. The Council for Islamic Ideology opposed it, in the name of Sharia law.