Tears rolled down Shahid Gill’s face as he recalled the day last month when a court in Pakistan handed his 13-year-old daughter into the custody of a 30-year-old Muslim man.
Gill, a Roman Catholic, works as a tailor in Gujranwala city, some 150 kilometers (93 miles) from Lahore. His daughter, Nayab, was a class seven student and worked as a helper in a beauty salon owned by Saddam Hayat. On May 20, Hayat and six others allegedly took Nayab from her home, converted her to Islam and forced her to marry Hayat.
Gill said that Hayat, already a married father of four children, offered to train Nayab in his beauty salon when her school was closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Hayat told me that rather than wasting time, Nayab should learn salon skills to help her in supporting the family financially,” Gill told Morning Star News. “He even offered to pick her up from home and drop her off after work, assuring us that she was just like his daughter.”
Hayat promised to pay 10,000 rupees (US$64) monthly to Nayab but stopped paying her after a couple of months, Gill said.
When Nayab went missing on the morning of May 20, Gill and his wife Samreen went to Hayat’s house to inquire about her, but his family said he wasn’t home, Gill said. Later in the day Hayat contacted them but denied knowing Nayab’s whereabouts.
“He then offered to help us in finding her and also accompanied us to several places to search for her,” Gill said.
Hayat accompanied Gill’s wife to the police station to register a missing person case, but he told her not mention that Nayab worked for him or even that he used to take her to and from the salon, Gill said.
“My wife unknowingly trusted him and did what he told her to write in the application,” he said. “On May 26, we were informed by police that Nayab was in the Darul Aman [women’s shelter] since May 21. In her application submitted to a magistrate’s court the same day [May 21], she claimed that she had willfully converted to Islam a month ago and her life was at risk from her Christian family.”
Nayab claimed in her May 21 application that she was an adult, “unmarried woman,” yet her alleged Islamic marriage certificate (Nikah Nama) was registered on May 20, the day she went missing. The judge ignored these conflicting claims as he ignored other evidence, Gill said.
Nayab’s family met her at the shelter on May 26, and she told her grandmother that she wanted to return home and was willing to state this in an application to the court, Gill said.
“We were waiting outside the Darul Aman when a female warden told us that Nayab’s application would have to be verified by the Darul Aman superintendent so we would have to wait for some time,” Gill said.
Meantime, a security guard told the family that Nayab had written the application, but that the superintendent had forced her to talk to Hayat and one other person on the phone before she had a chance to sign it.
“The superintendent then sneaked out of the back gate and went to the police and told them that we had besieged the shelter home and they should remove us from there,” Gill said. “Meanwhile, Hayat also reached there and threatened us that he would open fire at us if we did not leave the spot in five minutes. We refused to budge an inch, but then the police arrived and told us to come to the court the next day for the hearing.”
Nayab on May 27 appeared in the court of Special Judicial Magistrate Qaiser Jameel and reiterated her initial statement that she was a 19-year-old adult and had become a Muslim of her own will, Gill said.
“Our lawyer did not show up at the hearing, so my wife and I directly approached the judge and presented all official documents to prove that my daughter was born on Oct. 16, 2007, which makes her 13 years and seven months old,” he said. “We told the judge that she was lying about her age under duress. She had bruises on her face, and her eyes were also red, which should have caught the judge’s attention, but he ignored it.”
The judge rejected the official documents proving her age as well as the marriage certificate of Gill and his wife, which showed that they had just entered their 18th year of marriage, casting doubt on how Nayab could be the legal age for marriage, 18, much less 19 as her Islamic Nikah Nama stated.
Gill said that Judge Jameel relied solely on Nayab’s statements made under obvious threat, rather than official documents, and failed to order an ossification test to determine her age.
“The judge accepted Nayab’s request to be allowed to leave the Darul Aman with Hayat’s family, and there was nothing we could do to stop her,” Gill said. “My mother collapsed in the courtroom as soon as the judge gave his order, and while we were attending to her, the police quietly spirited Nayab away.”
Kidnapped Christian girls commonly face threats that they or their family members will be killed if they do not testify in court that they converted and married of their own free will, rights advocates say. Intercourse with a girl below the age of 16 is statutory rape in Pakistan, but in most cases a falsified conversion certificate and Islamic marriage certificate influence police to pardon kidnappers. Church leaders and rights activists said they fear that shelter homes, police and courts facilitate the forced conversions of Christian girls.
Gill said he made repeated requests to area priests and others to help him in recovering his daughter, “but to no avail.”
“Many local Christian NGOs assured me of providing legal assistance for recovering our daughter, but they just vanished after taking photos with us,” he said, appealing to church authorities and government officials to help recover his daughter.
The Catholic Archbishop of Lahore, Sebastian Shaw, failed to respond to Morning Star News attempts to contact him.
The newly elected moderator bishop of the United Protestant Church of Pakistan, Azad Marshall, said he has decided to file for the child’s recovery at the Lahore High Court and file complaints against police and judicial officers for ignoring the legal provisions pertaining to abduction and rape in Nayab’s case.
“Unfortunately, our police and lower judiciary are facilitating child marriages and conversions of minority girls due to which the perpetrators of this serious crime manage to walk free,” Bishop Marshall told Morning Star News.
Police should have added sections related to seduction of a child, abduction and rape, but they failed to do so, he said.
“Prima facie the judge also refused to accept the child’s official birth certificate and did not even bother to order her medical tests to determine her age despite her parents’ pleas,” Bishop Marshall told Morning Star News.
Bishop Marshall said that five months ago he had filed a petition in the Supreme Court seeking intervention in cases of forced conversions and underage marriages, but the top court had raised objections to it.
“We have appealed against the rejection, but so far our appeal has not been fixed for hearing,” he said.
He added that as soon as he learned of Nayab’s case, he asked renowned human rights lawyer Saif Ul Malook to file a writ petition in the high court for the child’s recovery and re-investigation of the case.
“I’m quite hopeful that Nayab’s case will draw the attention of the superior judiciary and government towards this crucial issue once again, and a mechanism would be developed to stop such atrocities against the minority girls under the cover of religion,” Bishop Marshall said.
While opposition from Islamic forces is a major impediment in implementation of legislation aimed at protecting minorities from crimes such as forced conversions and underage marriages, the role of unprofessional, sub-Christian NGOs has also contributed much to damage cases of forced conversions and blasphemy, rights activists said.
Kashif Nawab, a human rights activist and director of SATH, said that cases of forced conversion of minority girls are often mishandled by nonprofessional NGOs, resulting in minor children being handed into the custody of their abductors.
“There is a plethora of nonprofessional Christian outfits in Pakistan who use these cases to obtain foreign donations under guise of providing legal and financial assistance to the victims’ families,” he said. “Once they receive the money, they engage incompetent lawyers who not only fail in presenting the cases professionally but often even do not show up at hearings.”
Nawab said cases of forced conversion and blasphemy make the rounds in NGO circles.
“There’s a rat race among vested interests to get to the victim’s family first, take photos with them and then send these photos to their donors for support,” he said. “Their lawyers attend just two or three hearings at most and then stop showing up in court. The helpless families are then forced to approach other such NGOs, and hence the cases are passed on to one hand from the other. It’s an injustice with the victims of the highest order.”
Bishop Marshall expressed similar concerns about the handling of such sensitive cases by unprofessional organizations.
“This is indeed a major issue in our country, and we are very concerned about it,” Bishop Marshall said. “I’ve already been advocating for the mainline church’s active role in advocacy and provision of legal aid to the poor victims, and we are now in the process of setting up such a platform.”
Leader in Forced Marriages
Nayab’s abduction adds to a list of growing cases of forced conversions and marriages of minority girls in Pakistan, particularly in Punjab and Sindh provinces.
A court in Faisalabad on Feb. 16 returned 13-year-old Farah Shaheen to her Roman Catholic father’s custody nearly nine months after she was kidnapped by three Muslims from the family’s home, raped, forcibly converted to Islam and forced to marry a 45-year-old man, according to the family.
Pakistan leads the world in forced marriages, with about 1,000 Christians married against their will to Muslims from November 2019 to October 2020, according to Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2021 World Watch List report. In terms of abductions, the report listed Pakistan as fourth with an estimated 100 kidnappings.
Though a parliamentary panel on minorities has forwarded key legislation to the government on curbing forced conversions of minority girls in Pakistan, Christian rights advocates say that lack of political will and courage to face pressure from Islamist groups is likely to keep the children vulnerable to such crimes.
The Stymie Forced Religious Conversion Bill forwarded to the Senate on Feb. 16 recommends that only adults should be allowed to change religion and only after appearing before a senior district judge.
The U.S. State Department in December re-designated Pakistan among nine other “Countries of Particular Concern” for severe violations of religious freedom. 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.