Christians protest about the child bride case involving Catholic teenager Arzoo Raja. (Photo supplied)
A medical board set up by a Pakistani high court to determine the age of a Catholic girl, who was allegedly abducted, forcibly converted to Islam and married off to her 44-year-old Muslim abductor, has found the minority girl to be a minor.
The test result was shared with Sindh High Court when it heard the child marriage case involving Arzoo Raja on Nov. 9.
“The medical test proves Arzoo is around 14 years. The court has also recognized NADRA documents stating Arzoo's age to be 13 as true,” Jibran Nasir, the counsel for Arzoo’s parents, told journalists after the hearing.
“The court has declared that prima facie she contracted a child marriage and ordered her to remain in a shelter home until the next hearing. The court has not disposed of this petition and the next hearing is after two weeks.”
Nasir said the court has yet to determine whether Arzoo can convert to Islam of her own free will given her age of 13. “At this stage only the question of child marriage has been addressed and resolved,” he added.
Raja Masih, the father of Arzoo Raja, welcomed the court’s decision.
“We thank God that the court has given a good decision. All we want is our daughter reunited with us. We need nothing else,” he said.
Arzoo’s mother Rita also hailed the decision, saying: “I salute the judges. May God bless them.”
Pastor Ghazala Shafique said that both the court and government had acted with maturity and responsibility to fast-track the case.
“Within two days of the constitution of the medical board, it has been determined that the girl’s age is around 14,” she said.
The pastor said the court had also clearly ordered police to take action against everyone involved in creating fake documents to contract Arzoo’s marriage with Ali Azhar.
“The court has strictly barred Ali Azhar from meeting Arzoo even if he secures bail,” she said, urging everyone to respect the decision. “Both the Church and civil society are satisfied with the court’s proceedings so far.”
In a statement on Nov. 8, the coordination committee for law and justice, law enforcement, constitutional and fundamental rights of Karachi, headed by Cardinal Joseph Coutts, strongly condemned the rising incidents of abduction, forced conversion and forced marriage of young girls from minority communities.
The committee condemned the alleged kidnapping, forced conversion and marriage of Arzoo Raja to a man more than three times her age and other such incidents.
According to the Catholic Church and official government (NADRA) documents, Arzoo is 13 years old and a sixth-grade student.
In a joint statement, Cardinal Coutts, Rev. Bishop Kaleem John (Anglican Church of Pakistan), Pentecostal, Baptist and other denominations stated: “Unfortunately in Pakistan, there are many such incidents like Arzoo and Huma [Younus] that are not reported but having a law from Sindh i.e Child Marriage Restraint Act, we demand that the government take serious notice of these incidents that have angered and upset the entire communities of minorities in Pakistan.”
They also said that “we appreciate the bill against forced conversions, introduced back in 2016 by the Sindh Provincial Assembly, which has not been passed yet. The government must work to safeguard the rights of religious minorities in Pakistan as enshrined in our constitution.”