Her mother stood outside the courtroom window in Karachi, Pakistan, wailing her name.
“Arzoo. My daughter,” she sobbed in Urdu.
It was Oct. 27, and that was the closest Rita Masih could get to 13-year-old Arzoo Raja in almost two weeks, stealing a slight glance of her before the teen was ushered away by court security.
“My daughter, my daughter,” she continued to cry into the window.
A few days later, Mashi’s cries were echoed in a video by Nagina Younas, as with sobs of despair she pleaded for the return of her own 15-year-old daughter, Huma Younas, whom she had not seen in over a year.
Both girls were victims of the country’s steadily growing practice of forced conversions. Young Christian and Hindu girls are abducted, forced to change their religion and marry their abductors.
In both cases the women sought help from the police but were turned away, told their teenage daughters had willfully married men 30 years their senior and had accepted Islam by their own accord.
Earlier this year, in April, 14-year-old Maira Shahbaz was walking to school in Faisalabad when three men with guns grabbed her and pulled her into their car, firing warning shots into the air, letting onlookers know not to get involved before driving off. Maira’s family went to the police with men that had witnessed the abduction, but they too were told to go home.
With systemic prejudice and discrimination so entrenched in the country, religious minorities like Maira’s family know there is little they can do to get their daughters back. Little is being done in Pakistan to stop this and the media has largely been silent.
Desperate, Maira’s family registered a complaint at a local court, and after months finally saw their daughter, though confined to the other side of a courtroom. Their nightmare would not end, and only got worse when the judge ordered the young girl to remain with her abductor, she now belonged to her husband.
Maira’s abductor claimed they had married in an Islamic ceremony where Maira had accepted Islam. For the judge, that was all he needed to hear, Maira now a Muslim could not return to her Christian family. Maira, fearing for her life, remained silent, sobbing as she was whisked away.
According to her family’s lawyer Sumera Shafique, “Islamic religious leaders attended the wedding despite the fact the girl was a minor.”
Speaking slowly and choosing her words carefully, afraid of violent backlash, she said Maira’s abductor Mohamed Niqash “told her to convert at gunpoint, and her life was threatened.”
A report by the Movement for Solidarity and Peace, a Pakistani human rights organization, estimates 1,000 Hindu and Christian girls are kidnapped each year, forced to marry Muslim men and converted to Islam. Most cases are not investigated by police.
Peter Daniel, a Christian Pastor and advocate in his community in Karachi, said parents are utterly helpless. Once the police or courts decide these girls have changed their religion they can not return to their families.
“Christian parents can’t take care of Muslim children — parents lose their rights to their children, this is Pakistani Islamic law,” Daniel said.
“Children can’t come back,” Shafique reiterated.
Maira was granted another court appearance. “This time, the judges heard everything, ” Shafique said. “And she was granted the protection of her parents.”
She was able to go home, but her ordeal is still not over.
It is common that apostates in Islam are threatened with death — carried out by lynch mobs. Potentially considered an apostate and concerned her abductor may try to kidnap her again, Maira and her mother are in hiding.
- Asia Bibi begins new life in Canada – but her ordeal may not be over
- Pakistan minister Shahbaz Bhatti shot dead in Islamabad
Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), a Catholic charity with an office in Canada, has taken an interest in cases like Maira’s and is currently helping her family.
“These girls are being physically and psychologically traumatized, and yet nobody seems to be doing very much about it,” ACN spokesperson John Pontifex said.
“For perverted people with no regard for the rights of minorities, these girls are easy pickings because their gender, their religion and their poverty denies them a voice.”
Peter Bhatti, founder of International Christian Voice, a Canadian human rights organization that aims to highlight the plight of those persecuted for their religion, says without help from the international community the practice of kidnapping young minority girls in Pakistan is not likely to end.
“Christian parents lose their children when they are considered converted”Sumera Shafique
“Judges are scared” said Bhatti. “They are afraid for their own safety and rule against minorities — they have to live in the community too.”
His brother Shahbaz Bhatti was a Christian member of Parliament and the only Christian cabinet minister in Pakistan. He was assassinated by an Islamic extremist in 2011 for his opposition to the country’s blasphemy law, which is notoriously used against the country’s religious minority population.
Shahbaz Bhatti advocated for the release of Asia Bibi, the Christian woman who spent nine years on death row in a Pakistani jail on charges of blasphemy before her release in 2018. She was granted asylum in Canada in 2019, where she still receives death threats and remains in hiding.
Bhatti has been in contact with Azroo Raja’s parents and said that police have arrested 44-year-old Ali Azhar who lived across the street from the family with kidnapping, and illegal marriage with a minor. But the arrest should not be considered a victory.
“Arzoo has been recovered but is staying at a women’s shelter,” Bhatti said. “Her parents believe that she has been brainwashed against them, that the man told her they would kill her if she went back.”
Daniel also expressed that coming forward for Christian families is not easy. “Arzoo’s parents have received death threats and her father has lost his job,” said Daniel.
Bhatti said he hopes the Pakistani Muslim community in Canada will also speak out against the kidnapping, rape and forced conversions of religious minorities in Pakistan, which he says they have yet to.
“So far people are accusing me of defaming the name of Pakistan, because we care about the safety of marginalized people,” he said. “We are put into the bad books.
“My brother made the ultimate sacrifice for minorities in Pakistan. We have to continue.”