Arzoo Raja is escorted to Singh High Court in Karachi on Nov. 9. (Photo: Nadim Bhatti)
Rita Masih cries at the doorsteps of Trinity Church in Karachi for her daughter who was allegedly abducted, forcibly converted to Islam and married off to a 44-year-old Muslim man.
“Just give back my daughter,” she says in tears, referring to Arzoo Raja, who appeared on Nov. 9 before Sindh High Court where she insisted that she had married Ali Azhar of her own free will and that she was 18 years old.
However, the court ordered action against the child marriage after a medical board confirmed the claims of her parents that she is only 13.
“This is a good decision. We thank God. We just want our daughter back. We salute the judge. God bless him,” her father said in a video statement.
Lawyer Jibran Nasir, counsel for Arzoo's parents, hailed the order as a positive development.
While the court recognizes national database regulatory authority (NADRA) documents stating Arzoo's age to be 13 as true, it has yet to determine whether Arzoo can convert to Islam of her own free will given her age. At this stage only the question of child marriage has been addressed and resolved, he said.
Last week Sindh High Court ordered the creation of a medical board to determine Arzoo's age after she insisted that she had married Ali Azhar of her own free will and that she was 18.
Raja’s parents maintained that she was only 13 and a victim of forced religious conversion and manipulation.
“She was seduced and enticed and the under influence of the criminal. The law is very clear that a child of 13 years can't give informed consent. The court has barred the accused from meeting her. All those involved in solemnizing the marriage will be involved in an investigation. These include those who forged documents that she is 18. The child marriage controversy has been addressed,” they said in a statement.
According to Pastor Ghazala Shafique, Arzoo's family are still barred from meeting her.
“The opposite party is insisting they will take away her daughter. Even in the court, they proclaimed meeting Arzoo regularly and providing her clothes in the shelter house. The family are losing confidence. They are ready to take care of her as responsible parents. I request all to pray for them,” she said.
Meanwhile, Arzoo's family requested police protection.
“This weekend a group of Christians asked us to sign a stamp paper declaring the transfer of the custody of our daughter to a relative. They claimed to be speaking on behalf of some religious leaders. We were not involved in the preparation of that document. We have shared their names with police,” said Rita Masih.
Pakistan Catholic Bishops’ Conference (PCBC) discussed the case at its biannual meeting in Lahore on Nov. 5-6.
“Besides discussing church matters, they also noted with grave concern the rising number of abductions, forced conversions and forced marriages of girls among the minority communities in Pakistan. The bishops’ conference condemned the kidnapping, forced conversion and marriage of the minor girl Arzoo Raja with a man more than three times her age and also other such incidents,” Archbishop Joseph Arshad, president the PCBC, said in a press release.
“The bishops deplore the inability of the police to take quick and effective action in the face of such criminal activities. The bishops appeal to the government to provide justice and protection to the vulnerable sections of society and further state that it is the responsibility of the state to legislate in order to protect its citizens, especially minor girls.”
Last week the Presbyterian Church of Pakistan stressed the need to sensitize parents attending church gatherings and to honor women at Christmas. Churches have also initiated supplication for the abducted Catholic teenager.
“We pray for laws that defend our daughters. We pray that the family of Arzoo Raja gets justice,” said Archbishop Sebastian Shaw of Lahore at a gathering at Sacred Heart Cathedral on Nov. 8.
“Parents should create a friendly atmosphere in their homes where children can easily share their feelings. The children should also study hard, explore the purpose of their life and become a source of pride for their parents and the Church.”
National Lobbying Delegation member Khalid Shehzad supported awareness sessions for Christian parents.
“The Church should hold awareness sessions for both children and parents about the negative effects of marrying into Muslim families who often reject them as Churi [a derogatory word meaning filthy and used for road sweepers]. The stigma usually carries on to the children of such families. Such victims often end up becoming sex workers or beggars,” he said.
The Church discourages interfaith marriages as well as divorce under Christian family law. The Muslim majority welcomes such marriages for males only.
While it is illegal to marry underage girls, the abductors often find a way around this by paying for forged medical reports to "prove" the girls are older. Several Pakistani judges have in the past prohibited girls who have converted to Islam from being returned to their "infidel" parents.