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Pakistan

Catholic altar girl in hiding in Pakistan after escaping abductor

Maira Shahbaz was raped, blackmailed and forced into sex work after being made to convert to Islam

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Catholic altar girl in hiding in Pakistan after escaping abductor

Maira Shahbaz celebrates her freedom with social activist Lala Robin Daniel (center). (Photo courtesy of Samson Salamat)

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A teenage Catholic altar girl is living in hiding in Pakistan with her mother and three siblings after escaping from her Muslim abductor who forced her to change her faith.

Their house, situated next to Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Madina Town, has been locked since Maira Shahbaz returned to one of her relatives on Aug. 18. Photos of her showing a victory sign have been shared by hundreds on social media.

“She was repeatedly raped during captivity. She was filmed naked and blackmailed to give favorable statement in courts regarding her conversion and marriage. She was also being forced to work as a sex worker,” social activist Lala Robin Daniel told UCA News.

“The family are being threatened and are changing their location every few days.”

Maira, 14, dropped out of school in grade 7 a few years after her father left the family. She befriended Nakash Tariq, also known as Mohamad Nakash, a Muslim barber.

Maira was abducted at gunpoint by 28-year-old Tariq and three other men in April and forced to marry Tariq of Faisalabad district in Pakistan’s most populous Punjab province.

In a shocking verdict in August, Lahore High Court ruled that Maira should continue as the second wife of Tariq as she had willingly converted to Islam and married him.

Her mother Nighat, who works as a maid in several houses, say Tariq abducted, converted and then married her. She moved the district court in Faisalabad for her daughter’s recovery, claiming that Maira was a minor.

In July, the sessions court directed that the girl be moved to a shelter home until the determination of her age. Tariq, however, challenged the ruling in Lahore High Court.

“The cleric who conducted nikah [Muslim marriage] dismissed the fake [age] certificate and went to the police to complain. Even so, the court ruled that the girl would have to move to his home,” said Daniel, chairman of the National Minorities Alliance.

“The scene in court looked more like a panchayat [village council]. The judge was pressurized to support the Muslim abductor. Even the investigation officer warned her of dire consequences if she returned to her Catholic family. We demand the Church run interfaith groups to intervene in such cases.”

Auxiliary Bishop Jacob Muricken of Palai Diocese in India’s Kerala state started an online campaign seeking justice for Maira on Aug. 15.

Advocate Sumera Shafique of the Christian Lawyers Association of Pakistan has filed a petition in the Rawalpindi Bench of Lahore High Court seeking the protection of Maira and cancellation of her marriage.

A judge has ordered a police officer to ensure her security and to probe the video being used to blackmail her. Maira recorded a statement to police on Aug. 28. Meanwhile, Tariq has registered a case alleging the kidnapping of his wife. 

Church reaction

Father Khalid Rashid Asi, parish priest of Holy Rosary Church, is trying to reach out to Maira’s family.

“We rejoice at her return. She was such a good choir member. The family clearly faced injustice and are still in danger. We condemned her abduction since day one and contacted Punjab’s minister for human rights and minorities affairs for her recovery,” said Father Asi, diocesan director of the Catholic bishops’ National Commission for Justice and Peace.   

He remembered speaking to Maira on the phone during her stay in a shelter home.

“She was crying and had not eaten for six days in the shelter house. She spoke about physical and mental torture. Cases of forced conversion in our diocese are mostly reported in villages,” he said.

According to UK-based Father Emmanuel Nazir, such incidents have increased in the past five years.

“We are Pakistanis by heart but face prejudice as the country progress. It is unfortunate that most cases are of underage girls. We hear about them mostly on social media. This is creating unrest in society. How can they make such big decisions? It seems minorities have no protection in Pakistan,” he said in a recent talk show on forced conversions and marriages. 

Bishop Abraham Daniel of Sahiwal Baptist Church called for “a stronger and modernized system” of Sunday schools in churches so that youngsters can learn about their rights.

“It is a challenge for the future of our nation. All denominations are ignoring resources to this ministry. Perhaps catechism isn’t their priority. Our youth needs awareness of political and human rights as well,” he said.

“The girls are basically abducted for sexual pleasure. The double standards are exposed when the community tries to recover eloped Muslim girls from former Christian males. Clerics in Sahiwal district interfaith harmony commission are discouraging such marriages. Many Hindus have left for neighboring countries but there is no haven for Pakistani Christians to save the dignity of their daughters.”

The Protection of the Rights of Religious Minorities Bill was last week sent to a Senate standing committee.

The bill, tabled in the upper house, proposes seven years of imprisonment and a fine of 100,000 rupees (US$597) for forced proselytization of a minority community in Pakistan. The draft mentioned that the state would support victims in such case.

It further says the marriage of a minor arranged after changing her/his religion would be considered “coerced” and be declared void. Sentences for hate speech, discrimination against a person on the basis of religion and protection of the religious symbols of non-Muslim Pakistanis would be non-bailable.

According to South Asia Partnership Pakistan, a local NGO, around 1,000 girls are abducted and forcibly converted to Islam every year.

Another 14-year-old Catholic girl, Huma Younus of Karachi’s Zia Colony, was abducted from her home last October, taken to neighboring Punjab province, converted to Islam and forced to marry. Huma has become pregnant and is imprisoned within the walls of one room, her lawyer said last month.

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