A 14-year-old Pakistani Christian girl was in tears after a judge ordered her to return to the Muslim man who abducted her at gunpoint during the COVID-19 lockdown and forcibly married and converted her to Islam.
Catholic teenager Maira Shahbaz, who was abducted in April, had recently been allowed by a lower court to leave her captor’s home and stay at a women’s shelter until her case was heard by the Lahore High Court.
However, Judge Raja Muhammad Shahid Abbasi of Lahore High Court ruled this week that she must return to the home of the married man who kidnapped her, and who the judge referred to as her “husband,” on the basis that she had converted to Islam, according to the U.S.-based persecution watchdog International Christian Concern.
This decision, made on August 4, overturned an earlier order by the Faisalabad District and Sessions Court placing Shahbaz in a women’s shelter.
On April 28, 2020, Shahbaz was abducted at gunpoint by Mohamad Nakash and two accomplices while walking home in Madina Town, near Faisalabad. According to witnesses, the abductors forced Shahbaz into a car and fired gunshots into the air as they fled the scene.
After the abduction, Shahbaz remained in Nakash’s custody. To justify his custody of Shahbaz, Nakash claims that he and Shahbaz are married and that she has converted to Islam. To support this claim, Nakash produced a marriage certificate stating that Shahbaz is 19 years old. However, the validity of this certificate has been brought into question as the Muslim cleric whose name is listed on the certificate has denied any involvement in the marriage.
Shahbaz’s parents have challenged the marriage’s validity in an attempt to regain custody of their daughter. As evidence, Shahbaz’s parents presented their daughter’s birth certificate to the Faisalabad District and Sessions Court. This document, supported by other school documents, proves that Shahbaz is a minor.
On July 30, Judge Rana Masood of the Faisalabad District and Sessions Court ordered that Shahbaz be allowed to leave Nakash’s custody and placed in a women’s shelter, known as Dar ul Aman, until the Lahore High Court heard her case. Following this order, police also registered a formal complaint against Nakash and his two accomplices for Shahbaz’s abduction in April.
On August 4, the ruling of the Faisalabad District and Sessions Court was overturned by Judge Raja Muhammad Shahid Abbasi of the Lahore High Court. Judge Abbasi reportedly ruled in favor of Nakash because the court found that Shahbaz had converted to Islam. Witnesses in the court claim that Shahbaz was in tears when the ruling was announced.
“It is unbelievable,” advocate Khalil Tahir Sandu, the lawyer representing Shahbaz’s parents, told Aid to the Church in Need. “What we have seen today is an Islamic judgement. The arguments we put forward were very strong.”
“The Child Marriage Restraint Act has been toothless,” Suneel Malik, a Pakistani human rights activist, told ICC. “The legal age of marriage for girls is set at 16. However, this is not effectively enforced by the courts in Pakistan. Judges continue to declare marriages of minors valid on the pretext of puberty under an Islamic interpretation of law.”
“The order is unprecedented and will likely mean Maria will never return to her family,” Shazia George, another Pakistan human rights activist, told ICC. “The decision to make a child bride stay with her abductor will add more misery to the case. Courts must ensure that the victims of forced conversion and child marriage are able to have their statements recorded without any duress or threat so perpetrators are brought to justice.”
According to a 2014 study by The Movement for Solidarity and Peace Pakistan, an estimated 1,000 women and girls from Pakistan’s Hindu and Christian community are abducted, forcibly married to their captor, and forcibly converted to Islam every year.
Pakistan ranks fifth on Open Doors 2020 World Watch list of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.