The Sindh High Court in Karachi, Pakistan, has validated the marriage of a 13-year-old Catholic girl to a Muslim man who abducted her.
Arzoo Raja had been taken from outside her home on October 13 and two days later, as the family searched for her, police announced that they had received marriage papers claiming that Arzoo was 18 and that she had converted to Islam to marry her 44-year-old abductor, Ali Azhar.
The family were able to provide the authorities with an official birth certificate proving Arzoo was 13, and they sought legal representation from Aid to the Church in Need to challenge the marriage’s validity.
On October 27, however, Arzoo appeared before the high court and gave evidence confessing that she had recited the Islamic proclamation of faith.
The court then issued an order validating the marriage, declaring that the 13-year-old had freely consented to her conversion and marriage:
“The petitioner initially belonged to the Christian religion. However, after the passage of time, the petitioner understood and realized that Islam is a universal religion and she asked her parents and other family members to embrace Islam but they flatly refused,” the court said.
“Subsequently she accepted the religion of Islam before the religious person of Madressah Jamia Islamia. After embracing Islam, her new name is Arzoo Faatima; per learned counsel petitioner contracted her marriage to Azhar of her own free will and accord without duress and fear.
The court also criticised the police for “harassing” Arzoo after her reported abduction and said that the authorities must now “provide protection to the newly wedded wife.”
The young girl was then escorted away by the police with the Muslim family, who will again appear in court on November 11.
Her parents were filmed outside the court begging to see her daughter. “Arzoo, come to your mama,” her mother Rita implored. “He will kill you.”
Arzoo’s mother and father have both lost their jobs following their daughter’s abduction and they have reportedly received threats from the family of Ali Azhar.
According to UCA News, Samson Salamat, the Christian chairman of the interreligious Movement for Tolerance, denounced the court verdict:
“I am distressed and disappointed with the position taken by the honourable court. A sexual act with a minor is felony even if she is willing. The court has validated a rape despite the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act 2014 that punishes contractors of child marriage with up to three years’ imprisonment,” he said.
“Can a judge, an army officer or a Pakistani politician tolerate handing over their minor daughter to a middle-aged man. What is the future of minority girls in Pakistan? Our courts favour the powerful. We still don’t have strong calls from a joint minority platform on forced conversions.”
The case has sparked protests in Karachi and Lahore against forced conversions and marriages and Cardinal Joseph Coutts of Karachi called on Christians to protest again on October 28 against the abduction of Arzoo Raja.
The Church in Pakistan has also protested the similar cases of Huma Younus and Maira Shahbaz, two other Catholic teenagers who were abducted by Muslim men and subject to forced conversion and marriage which the courts validated.
Younus, now pregnant with her abductor’s child, was kidnapped aged 15 in October 2019 and, according to a petition by persecution.org, is currently “imprisoned in a single room in her captor’s home”.
Meanwhile, 14-year-old Maira Shahbaz was taken at gunpoint in April of this year but later managed to escape. Aid to the Church in Need have launched a campaign to grant her asylum in the UK because she is currently in “immediate danger” and is “hiding from extremists who accuse her of apostasy”.