Subdivisional police officer Fehmida Abbasi (left) with Arzoo Raja, investigation officer Sharik Siddique and Ali Azhar (right) at a police station in Karachi on Nov. 2. (Photo supplied)
Social media is buzzing with excitement after police in Pakistan recovered a teenage Catholic girl who was abducted, forcibly converted to Islam and married to a 44-year-old Muslim man in a case that sparked nationwide protests.
“By His grace, 13-year-old Arzoo Raja has been recovered, Ali Azhar arrested. Thanks to Almighty God first and then each and everyone who raised their voice for Arzoo on any platform … and all who directly or indirectly were involved in this case,” Catholic vlogger Sunny Gill said in a Facebook post.
Arzoo’s parents say she was kidnapped on Oct. 13 while playing outside her home in Karachi. Her family broke the news of her recovery in a video message before leaving for a reunion with Arzoo at a police station on the evening of Nov. 2.
“Thank God my daughter is recovered. I thank you all. The whole world is chanting for my daughter. This has strengthened our faith,” said Rita Masih, Arzoo’s mother, with her hands placed together in prayer.
Pastor Ghazala Shafique said that “God has answered the prayers of all the faithful.”
“He saved the altar girl. The case was fixed early. She was given steroids to look older and fat. She was tortured to give video messages,” he said, referring to recent videos in which the teenager claimed to be harassed and proclaimed her free will in the marriage and her new name as Arzoo Fatima.
Azhar was arrested hours after Sindh High Court on Nov. 2 ordered that the child bride be produced before it later this week. His two brothers (both police constables) and a friend were also detained for aiding a forceful marriage. Arzoo has been sent to the custody of women police.
The judge also directed police to determine Arzoo’s age, the legality of her marriage status and investigate claims that she had converted to Islam according to her own free will.
Catholic bishops and diocesan commissions protested while beleaguered activists condemned the provincial court for validating the marriage last week. Both the federal and Sindh government later pursued the case as #JusticeForArzoo kept trending.
Jibran Nasir, the counsel for Arzoo's parents, criticized the legal fraternity for supporting Arzoo's kidnappers.
“A group of lawyers wrongfully verify the age of child brides and betray the trust of the bench. Others are interested in foreign funding and photo sessions,” he said, citing the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act 2014 that punishes contractors of child marriage with up to three years' imprisonment.
“With combined pressure from both governments, this case can become ground for formulating a joint policy for the rights of our children. Arzoo is not a poster child for such violations. Delayed justice and rampant facilitators of faith conversion are a cancer in our society.
“Judges in trial courts can be sensitized about laws. The burden of recitation of Kalma, the Islamic proclamation of faith, is considered too heavy. Nobody wants to displease Allah. Kalma doesn’t make rape halal or permissible according to Islamic law. This is blasphemy.
“Nobody calls the parents unless the news becomes viral on Twitter. Later the politicians swarm their house for photo sessions for superficial politics and morality.”
For decades, Hindus in Sindh province have also been complaining of the forced conversion of their female children aged 11-14.
In September, the subcommittee of the Senate Standing Committee on Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony rejected the Protection of the Rights of Religious Minorities Bill, 2020, arguing that a committee was already working to prevent the forced conversion of minorities and a Hindu had been made chairman of the National Commission for Minorities.
The bill was reintroduced in the Senate on Nov. 2. It prohibits hate material in textbooks against minorities as well as forced conversions. It punishes the perpetrators of forced conversion with seven years of imprisonment and a fine. It also advises 14 years of jail for those involved in forced marriage with minorities.
Khalil Tahir Sindhu, a member of Punjab Assembly, condemned the ongoing crimes against minority women.
“Marriage is a social contract in Islam and no minor can do such a contract. A criminal case will be registered against the cleric who prepared the marriage certificate [for Arzoo Raja] and used it fraudulently. Section 376 [punishment for rape] of Pakistan Penal Code shall apply to Azhar and the sentence is death or imprisonment of not less 10 years,” he said.
Naumana Suleman, the former minority female adviser to UN Women Pakistan, formed the Minority Women's Forum last month to advocate for the rights of non-Muslim females.
“The core group of this forum includes women from Hindu, Christian and Sikh communities. The forum will be led by minority women themselves and will be reaching out to like-minded human rights organizations, networks/forums and activists for their support to advance the cause,” she said.
Samson Salamat, chairman of Rwadari Tehreek (movement for religious tolerance), stressed the need for a continual struggle.
“This is a first step. We have to free Huma Younus. We are awaiting action against police officers who sent Arzoo back to her rapist and against the cleric who signed her conversion certificate. A lot needs to be done. Many girls in such cases have vanished in the past. They are all daughters of Pakistan irrespective of their religion,” he said.
“Ali Azhar is supported by a mafia involved in forced conversions and marriages. Laws against marriages of minors must be effective. I thank ulema and common people for the mounting pressure. We need the rights of the Religious Minorities Bill to stop the business of conversions.”
Huma Younus, 14, a grade eight student, was abducted on Oct. 10 last year from her Karachi home by a Muslim man named Abdul Jabbar and his two accomplices, according to her parents.