Updated: December 23, 2020 03:33 AM GMT
Arzoo Raja is escorted to Sindh High Court in Karachi on Nov. 9. (Photo: Nadim Bhatti)
Pakistan is setting up a special center to examine forced religious conversion and the underage marriage of minority girls.
The announcement was made by Hafiz Tahir Ashrafi, the special aide to Prime Minister Imran Khan on religious affairs and chairman of Pakistan Ulema Council, in a tweet on Dec. 16.
“A Special Coordination Center has been established to address the issues of minorities. No one will be allowed to make panic in the country on the issues of forceful conversions and underage marriages,” Ashrafi said.
“The issues being faced by non-Muslim Pakistanis will be addressed with the formation of interfaith harmony councils.”
The move comes after a Karachi court on Dec. 9 approved the inclusion of a rape offense for the trial of a Muslim man accused of converting and marrying an underage Catholic girl.
Arzoo Raja, a 13-year-old resident of Railway Colony in Karachi, was allegedly abducted, forcibly converted to Islam and married to her 44-year-old Muslim neighbor Syed Ali Azhar.
Raja’s parents approached Sindh High Court, which declared the marriage to be invalid and ordered her transfer to a shelter home after her refusal to go home. Ali Azhar was arrested and remains in police custody.
The announcement of the coordination center came a few days after Ashrafi met with Catholic and Protestant bishops and acknowledged the misuse of blasphemy laws.
“You know and we accept that 295-C [the blasphemy law] has been misused in the past. But the trend has decreased 90 percent under the present government,” Ashrafi said.
“We have decided to sit with non-Muslim leaders and spread awareness regarding the issue of insulting Islam and the Prophet to discourage misuse of this law. The blasphemy law has saved the lives of Christians accused of blasphemy.”
Ashrafi said he has already reviewed 104 blasphemy cases since his appointment in September.
“We have declared 100 victims innocent and shared recommendations. I thank clerics of all sects and lawyers for cooperating with us in this matter. We want to move ahead. Pakistan belongs to all religious minorities. Everyone should work within the ambit of the constitution and the law,” he added.
Vincent Thomas, head of the interfaith dialogue commission of the Archdiocese of Karachi, welcomed the announcement.
“At times we have to face problems in reaching out to government officials on the issues of minorities. This special center can definitely help save our time and efforts, but we will see how it benefits minorities and improves interfaith harmony,” he told UCA News.