A court in Pakistan’s Punjab Province has granted custody of a 13-year Christian girl to a Muslim man who has three wives and allegedly abducted her and forced her to marry him and convert to Islam.

Shahid Gill, the Catholic father of the girl, Nayab Gill, pleaded that his daughter was underage and could not legally marry or change her religion on her own, but the Lahore High Court upheld a ruling of a lower court, giving custody to the Muslim man, identified as 30-year-old Saddam Hayat, Morning Star News reported.

Justice Shahram Sarwar Chaudhry last week rejected the girl’s official birth documents showing she was 13, while siding with Hayat who claimed she had converted to Islam of her own free will on May 20.

Hayat, who has three wives and four children, brought 12 of his supporters along with him to the courtroom, Pakistan Christian Post said.

The girl told the court she had married Hayat and converted to Islam voluntarily.

“When the judge asked Nayab about her age, she said she was 19 years old and reiterated her claim that she had converted to Islam and married Hayat of her free will,” the father was quoted as saying.

The attorney representing the girl’s family told the judge, “Her claim of converting to Islam and marrying Hayat could be due to coercion since she has been living with the accused and his family for over a month and a half.” 

The judge also rejected the lawyer’s citation of a 2019 Lahore High Court ruling that children younger than 15 lacked the mental capacity to change their religion.

The girl’s father indicated that he was disappointed with the lawyer.

“When Nayab claimed that she was 19 years old, I nudged the advocate to demand evidence in support of her claim, but he kept quiet,” Gill told Morning Star News. “He also did not demand medical tests of my child to determine her exact age.”

Church of Pakistan President Bishop Azad Marshall was quoted as saying that attorney Saif Ul Malook, who represented Asia Bibi, was initially supposed to fight Nayab’s case, but a group pressured her parents not to hire him.

Intercourse with a girl younger than 16 is considered rape in Pakistan, but men in many such instances produce fake conversion and Islamic marriage certificates to defend themselves.

A 2014 study by The Movement for Solidarity and Peace Pakistan estimated that about 1,000 women and girls from Pakistan’s Hindu and Christian communities were abducted, forcibly married to their captor, and forcibly converted to Islam every year.

The issue of religion is also often injected into cases of sexual assault to place religious minority victims at a disadvantage, the U.S.-based persecution watchdog International Christian Concern has previously said, adding that perpetrators play upon religious biases to cover up and justify their crimes by introducing an element of religion.

International persecution watchdog group Open Doors USA ranks Pakistan No. 5 on its 2021 World Watch List of countries where Christians face the most severe persecution due to an “extreme” level of Islamic oppression. Pakistan is also listed by the U.S. State Department as a “country of particular concern” for tolerating in or engaging in egregious violations of religious freedom.

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