Christian Parents in Pakistan Regain Custody of Minor Daughter

Allegedly kidnapped, forcibly married/converted girl opts for home.

Arzoo Raja flanked by police in Karachi, Pakistan, with Ali Azhar on far right, on Nov. 2, 2020. (Photo released by Sindh government)

Arzoo Raja flanked by police in Karachi, Pakistan, with Ali Azhar on far right, on Nov. 2, 2020. (Sindh government photo)

LAHORE, Pakistan (Morning Star News) – A court in Pakistan on Wednesday (Dec. 22) handed custody of a 14-year-old girl back to her Christian parents after she testified that she wished to return to them from a shelter home, sources said.

The Sindh High Court (SHC) issued the decision in the case of Arzoo Raja, now known as Arzoo Fatima, whose parents accuse her Muslim neighbor of kidnapping her in Karachi, forcibly converting her to Islam and forcing her to marry him in 2020.

The court had returned her to the shelter home on Nov. 23, 2020 after Arzoo, apparently under pressure, declined to go with her parents. The court, however, gave her the opportunity to consider her decision while at the shelter.

After living at the shelter for a year, Arzoo filed an application requesting to leave the shelter home and move back with her Catholic parents of her own free will. The counsel for Arzoo’s alleged husband argued that since she had converted to Islam, she could not be returned to her parents because they were Christians.

The court ordered Arzoo not to meet with her alleged husband, Ali Azhar, who could face a criminal trial under child marriage and rape laws.

Attorney Jibran Nasir, representing Arzoo’s parents, said the latest legal struggle focused only on custody.

“Our case was for the girl’s recovery, which has been granted,” Nasir told Morning Star News. “Her conversion was not the subject.”

Nasir, a well-known human rights activist, added that he is working to prosecute Azhar under the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act and rape laws. Azhar, 44 when apprehended, was released on bail earlier this year.

Asked whether Arzoo can return to her Christian faith, Nasir said there was no religious or legal bar to a minor against reconsidering a decision to convert.

“If she was indeed intimidated into converting to Islam, and some days later she finds the courage to give a statement in court, the judge won’t object to it,” Nasir told Morning Star News.

The SHC had ordered that Arzoo’s case be investigated in accordance with the Child Marriage Restraint Act after a medical board declared her a minor. The age requirement for marriage is 16 in all of Pakistan’s provinces except the southern province of Sindh, where it is 18.

Conversion Issue

SHC division bench Justice Mohammad Karim Khan Agha and Justice Arshad Hussain Khan on Wednesday (Dec. 22) asked Arzoo if she had converted to Islam of her own free will. She replied in the affirmative and said she wanted to go with her parents.

Her parents assured the court that they would not pressure her into changing her religion and would allow her to practice her religion freely. They also said that they would not cause any physical or mental harm to their daughter for converting to Islam or for initially deciding to reside at the shelter home.

The court then ordered that Arzoo be returned to her parents’ home, and that until she reaches age 18, her parents must bring her before the relevant police officer every three months to certify whether she was being treated well. If not, the matter would be put up before the court.

Pakistan’s leading human rights lawyer, Saif Ul Malook, criticized the SHC verdict.

“I fail to understand why the judges had to bring up the conversion issue when the matter was related only to the girl’s application for relocating to her parents’ home,” Malook told Morning Star News. “They have signed her death warrant, if you ask me.”

He said the SHC verdict should be challenged in the Supreme Court because the judges transgressed their jurisdiction.

“There’s no legal provision that empowers an SHO [Station House Officer] to summon the girl every three months to check her wellbeing and whether she’s sticking to her Muslim faith or not,” Malook said. “This is an absurd judgment.”

Malook, known for winning freedom for Pakistan’s most high-profile blasphemy convict, Aasiya Noreen (better known as Asia Bibi),  said Arzoo’s parents were unlikely to win a rape conviction against Azhar.

“In this situation the only offense the accused has prima facie committed is the violation of the Child Marriage Restraint Act, which bars marriage under the age of 18,” Malook told Morning Star News. “His release on bail is a sign that he’ll escape punishment.”

Apparently under pressure, Arzoo has repeatedly claimed that she converted to Islam and married Azhar of her own free will, Malook said.

“The accused has also admitted to having a sexual relationship with her because she was his supposed wife according to sharia [Islamic law],” he said.

Child marriages are criminal under Pakistan’s Child Marriage Restraint laws. While Pakistani law recognizes intercourse with a girl below 16 years of age with or without her consent as rape punishable by death, courts have repeatedly held that marriage of an underage Muslim girl cannot be termed invalid because Islamic law holds that a consenting girl who has reached puberty can marry.

‘Serious Concern’

Church of Pakistan President Azad Marshall said he fears the verdict could bind Arzoo to stick to her new religion and is a cause of serious concern.

“It’s unfortunate that our judges do not ascertain the pressures coming to bear on girls when they make declarations of consent before trial and high courts, nor do they take into account their intellectual, emotional and social maturity,” he told Morning Star News.

Marshall said that such declarations of consent are not investigated to ascertain whether they are voluntary or result from threats, psychological abuse and conditioning and fear of social stigma and rebuke.

The senior church leader reiterated his demand for legislation against forced conversions of minority girls, stressing that setting an age bar and giving new converts time to reconsider their decision before being granted a court-approved conversion certificate was the only way to stop child conversions under the guise of Islamic marriages.

The Federal Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony has resisted legislation designed to fight such forcible conversions.

On Sept. 23 the ministry returned a draft of the Anti-Forced Conversion Bill to the Federal Ministry for Human Rights after raising objections on several clauses of the proposed legislation. The Religious Affairs Ministry stated that it was opposed to clauses related to the 18-year age bar on religious conversion, appearance before a judge, and a 90-day waiting period, saying these restrictions were anti-Islamic, illegal and violated the fundamental constitutional rights of an individual.

The European Parliament, meantime, has stated that Pakistan’s duty-free market access was linked with “rapid implementation” of international commitments on human and minority rights. The EU parliament has also adopted two resolutions that would put that access in jeopardy if Pakistan fails to comply with human rights standards.

European Parliament Vice President Heidi Hautala has told reporters the two resolutions were a signal to the Pakistani government that there was no guarantee that the GSP Plus scheme will continue without further implementation of UN conventions.

“We would like to see a bit more rapid implementation of the laws, particularly anti-torture law, sexual violence, and protection of women and children rights,” she said.

The U.S. State Department on Nov. 15 re-designated Pakistan as a Country of Particular Concern, a term used for states that commit or condone religious rights violations under the U.S. International Religious Freedom Act. Previously Pakistan had been added to the list on Nov. 28, 2018.

Pakistan ranked fifth on Christian support organization Open Doors 2021 World Watch list of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.

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