CNA Staff,- Arzoo Raja, a 13-year-old Catholic girl in Pakistan whom a 44-year-old man allegedly kidnapped, forced to convert to Islam, and married, has been recovered and is in protective custody.
Raja, who is from Karachi, was kidnapped in broad daylight Oct. 13 by Ali Azhar, 44. Raja’s parents were informed days later by the police that their daughter had converted to Islam and had married Azhar, allegedly of her own free will.
Her parents filed a police report, and Jibran Nasir, the family’s lawyer, said the girl’s parents had filed a harassment petition on her behalf in late October.
Two weeks after her abduction, on Oct. 27, the Sindh High Court, based on statements the girl gave saying she was 18, ruled the marriage was valid and that Azhar would not be arrested.
The High Court reversed itself and ordered police to find the teenager Nov. 2, the BBC reported. She was recovered later that day and will remain in protective custody until a court hearing Nov. 5. Azhar was arrested the same day and was expected to appear in court Nov. 3.
Documentation has proven that Raja was born in 2007 and is 13 years old.
Child marriage is technically illegal in Pakistan, but courts typically do not enforce these laws. Sharia, which is used in some judicial decisions in Pakistan, permits a child to be married after her first menstrual period.
Approximately 400 people protested the decision at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Karachi, and Christians in other parts of the country protested as well. Aid to the Church in Need, which supports persecuted Christians, has provided legal and paralegal aid in the case.
Fr. Saleh Diego, vicar general of the Archdiocese of Karachi, condemned the court for ruling without properly investigating the circumstances.
“Whatever happened in the court was shameful and deplorable. It was all lies that the girl was being sent to a shelter home,” Diego said.
“The court, without checking or determining Arzoo’s age, ruled in favor of the abductors.”
The vicar general said there was a “disturbing trend” in Pakistan of Catholic girls being forcibly converted to Islam.
“Religious minorities living in Pakistan are concerned about the future of their daughters who are being converted to Islam,” he said. “But why only girls? Are our boys not good enough for religious conversion? Why are they not so easily converted?” he asked.
In February, the Sindh High Court ruled that a marriage between a 14-year-old girl who was kidnapped, forced to marry her abductor, and convert to Islam was not a violation of the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act.
The court found that as the girl had experienced her first menstrual period, the marriage was legal.
Pakistan’s state religion is Islam, and around 97 percent of the population is Muslim.
The country was designated, for the first time, a “Country of Particular Concern” in December 2018 for its religious freedom record by the US Department of State.
Catholic and other religious leaders signed a joint resolution in August 2019 encouraging the Pakistani government to adopt policies to protect religious minorities. It included 10 recommendations meant to safeguard the rights of minorities and women, and its signers included representatives of the country’s Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, and Baha’i communities.
The first point adopted in the joint resolution urges that the minimum age for marriage be made 18 years; the current marriage age for women is now 16.
The religious leaders also noted that “there is no forced conversion according to the Holy Quran.” On that basis, they urged legislation against abduction, sexual violence, and subsequent forced conversion to Islam, which acts they said do not propagate “the true spirit of Islam.”