The case of Maira Shahbaz is just one of too many. But then, even one case of Christian and Hindu girls – mostly minors – who are kidnapped in Pakistan, forced to marry their captors, and then convert to Islam would already be too many. The numbers reported by International Christian Concern (ICC), an association that defends persecuted Christians around the world, amount to more than a thousand cases a year. It is why Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has ordered an investigation into sexual assaults, forced conversions and fraudulent marriages by which kidnappers trap their victims. Often, many members of law enforcement and some local courts side with the kidnappers, leaving no way out for the victims.
Maira seeks asylum in the UK
Maira’s story follows a tragic script: kidnapped and raped by three men in April 2020, she was forced to marry one of her rapists, Mohamad Nakash Tariq, and sign a declaration of conversion to Islam. Faced with the threat of the publication of the video of the violence, the girl gave in to all the demands of the kidnappers. Having fled the home of the man who had forced her into marriage, Maira was then taken by authorities into a women’s shelter while her case was being heard by the Lahore High Court. Pakistani law, however, requires that the young woman be returned to her husband, deeming validity to both the marriage and the conversion to Islam despite both being obtained under threat.
Months later, Maira managed to escape yet again; this time, with the help of relatives. Her “husband” Nakash then denounced Maira for apostasy which is a crime that carries the death penalty in Pakistan. It has also been applied to her Catholic relatives. Nakash, on the other hand, has been charged with child rape. While the Rawalpindi court is examining the case, Maira has been forced to go into hiding under police protection due to constant death threats. She has therefore sought asylum for herself and her family in the United Kingdom. The British branch of Aid to the Church in Need – a Pontifical Foundation – has issued a petition that has already garnered more than 12,000 signatures as of this writing, and was handed over on 4 February to Fiona Bruce, Special Envoy of the British Prime Minister for Freedom of Religion and Belief.
“They threatened to kill my whole family,” Maira cried. “They also showed me naked videos of me and pictures they took with their cell phones while raping me.” Regardless of the court’s verdict, the girl’s life and that of her family members in Pakistan will always be in danger, as the young girl is facing charges of apostasy pronounced by the kidnapper and his supporters. As Maira’s lawyer Sumera Shafique says, Pakistani extremists will always view Maira as an apostate who will be killed at the first opportunity.
Not only Maira
As we have stated, this is just one of too many such stories. Arzoo Raja, a 13-year-old girl from Karachi, was kidnapped to be forced into conversion and marriage by 44-year-old Ali Azhar. Summoned before the Sindh High Court two weeks after the abduction, Raja reportedly declared that she was of age and hence the marriage was deemed valid.
A Hindu student Namrita Chandani, who was abducted and raped, was found dead in September 2019. Suicide was mentioned, but the family remains convinced she was murdered. Momal Meghwar committed suicide by jumping into a well in the village of Dalan-Jo-Tarr. The 17-year old was unable to withstand the persecution she was subjected to by her rapists, who had been freed pending trial.
Farah Shaheen, a 12-year-old Christian girl from Faisalabad’s Gulistan district, was kidnapped by 45-year-old Khizar Ahmed Ali, “converted”, and then “married” her kidnapper. Her father, trying to save her, exposed himself to the charge of blasphemy for daring to raise doubts about her conversion. Only after four months of searching did he find a lawyer willing to help him. When Farah appeared before the Allahabad District Court, she had deep marks on her ankles and was in an obvious state of shock. Although Farah was found and returned, it is hard to imagine that her captors will be punished. It is even harder to imagine that she could ever really recover from such a horrific experience. The Union of Catholic Asian News (UCA) reported on the testimony of activist Lala Robin Daniel: “After negotiating with the criminals, the officers first took her to the police station. She had injuries to her ankles and feet, which were treated at the barracks. She was traumatized and could not recount the torture she had suffered […]. The marriage, the forced conversion and the wounded feet speak of the horror that had passed.”
No religious freedom
In Pakistan, the legal and administrative system struggles between the dictates of secular laws and adherence to Islamic Shari’a Law. For instance, child marriage is forbidden by secular law but considered permissible by the more radical fringe of Islam. And when the extremists crowd outside the courts, it makes it all the more difficult to present birth certificates and official documents to get these so-called marriages annulled.
A recent report from Open Doors International shows that the Covid-19 crisis is making a horrible situation even worse. The Christian organization that fights for the respect of human rights states that more than 340 million Christians suffer discrimination, inequality or active persecution daily. In fact, 2,983 cases of Christians being killed for their faith were recorded by the international watchdog group between 2018 and 1019, while there were at least 4,781 between October 2019 and September 2020. In particular, Christians in Pakistan are considered second-class citizens. Blasphemy laws are used to target them, and Islamic extremists often seek private justice, killing those they believe have transgressed.
Meanwhile in Britain, Bruce has called Maira’s situation “tragic and heartbreaking”. As for the petition, she says it will be forwarded “immediately to the Home Secretary for urgent consideration”. An open letter to the Prime Minister supporting the asylum claim has been signed by more than 30 MPs, bishops and leaders of charities and human rights organizations. Among them is Msgr. Philip Mounstephen, Anglican bishop of Truro, England, who says “tragic cases such as that of Maira Shahbaz are a test case for the British Government’s commitment to putting religious freedom at the heart of its foreign policy. I therefore urge the Government to recognize how Maira’s rights have potentially been fatally compromised and to offer her asylum.”
Similar statements were made by the Coptic Orthodox Archbishop of London, Angaelos, the national director of ACS UK, Neville Kyrke-Smith, and the president and founder of Christian Solidarity Wordwide, Mervyn Thomas.
As the ACS states, “until Pakistan takes the matter head-on, the prospects for Maira, Arzoo and hundreds of others affected in a similar manner – people who suffer because they are women, because they are young and because of the faith they profess – remain very uncertain.”