The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Pakistan (CBCP) has made an unprecedented plea to the government: Stop the “abduction and forced marriages of girls among the minority communities.”

After the CBCP’s Nov. 5-6 assembly, Pakistan’s bishops condemned the kidnapping and forced marriage of underage girls in the country and highlighted the case of Arzoo Raja, 13, a Catholic girl who was abducted and forced into marriage with a Muslim man more than three times her age. 

Deploring the “inability of the police to take quick and affective action in the face of such criminal activities,” the bishops of Pakistan “appealed to the government to provide justice and protection to the vulnerable sections of society.” 

“It is the responsibility of the state to legislate in order to protect its citizens, especially minor girls,” said CBCP’s president, Bishop Joseph Arshad of Islamabad-Rawalpindi, amid the furor over the abduction, conversion and marriage. 

After discovering that Raja had been taken by strangers in front of her home in Karachi’s Railway Colony on the morning of Oct. 13, the distraught Catholic parents reported the kidnapping to the local police. 

On Oct. 15, the parents were summoned to the police station and were shown marriage documents that claimed that Raja was 18 years old, had “willingly converted to Islam,” and married 44-year-old Syed Ali Azhar. 

The High Court in Karachi on Oct. 30 rejected the plea of the parents and upheld the claim that Raja was indeed 18 and that she accepted Islam and married Ali Azhar “willfully.” 

The court order, which refused to order the arrests of culprits and allowed Azhar to take Raja with him, sparked countrywide shock and protests from Christians and human-rights groups.

A video of Raja refusing to listen to her mother on her knees inside the court went viral. In the video, Raja is heard telling her mother that she converted to Islam of her own free will. But activists and relatives say the video was extorted from her because the child was “brainwashed.”

In crimes such as these, abductors often secure their victim’s silence and complicity by threatening their families. In many cases, as well, protesting families are lured into silence or remain silent due to fear of backlash. However in Raja’s case, Bilawal Bhutto Sardari, chairman of Pakistan Peoples Party, lent his voice to the protests.

Following these developments, the High Court promptly reversed its order: The man who had been earlier allowed to walk away with the kidnapped girl on Nov. 3 was jailed, and Raja was moved to a government shelter home until the courts delivered a final verdict in the case. 

In reversing its earlier order, the High Court blamed the investigating police officers for misleading the court and confirmed the government birth certificate and medical documents presented by the family lawyer as valid. 

Not all cases end as well as Azoo’s, however. A 14-year-old Catholic girl, Maria Shahbaz, was abducted in Faisalabad in April 2020 by Muhammad Naqash and an accomplice while she was traveling to her workplace.

In early August, the Lahore High Court overturned an earlier verdict by a Faisalabad court, which had directed the victim to be rehabilitated in a woman’s shelter home, and ordered that the 14-year-old girl be returned to the man who abducted her, advising Shahbaz to “be a good wife.’” 

In late August, Shahbaz fled Naqash’s home in Faisalabad, where sources close to the family say she was forced into prostitution. After her escape, she went to a police station to give her testimony, in which she also declared that she was filmed while being raped by the kidnapper, said a report by Aid to the Church in Need. Now, Shahbaz, her mother and three siblings are on the run. “They threatened to murder my whole family,” she said in the report from Aid to the Church in Need. “My life was at stake in the hands of the accused, and Naqash repeatedly raped me forcefully.”

“The ugly reality of forced conversions is that they are not seen as a crime, much less as a problem that should concern the majority of Pakistan,” said Father Emmanuel Yousaf, director of the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) of the Catholic Church in Pakistan.

Muslims account for more than 95% of Pakistan’s estimated 220 million population, with Christians and Hindus counted among the largest of the nation’s religious minorities.

“We cannot allow our children and girls to be taken away from us, forcibly converted and married. A bill against forced conversions was introduced back in 2016 in the Sindh Provincial Assembly, which has not been passed yet. The government must work to safeguard the rights of religious minorities in Pakistan as enshrined in our constitution,” Father Yousaf added.

“We are indeed happy about the turnaround in Raja’s case. But this is not a one-off problem. It happens often. Forced conversion has become a major tool for the persecution of Christians and Hindus in Pakistan,” said NCJP’s secretary, Cecil Shane Choudhary, to the Register. “Religious intolerance in Pakistan is sharply rising.” 

A special report by a commission that has already documented hundreds of forced marriages in Pakistan indicated that the problem is greater than it might seem. 

“There are many such incidents that do not get reported,” the report noted. “Forced conversions are too easily and too often disguised as voluntary conversions, leaving minor girls especially vulnerable.”

During the period, Choudhry said, the commission has recorded 1,831 forced conversions of Christians and Hindus (including men) as documented from various news sources with details of locations and other information. 

“We have collected cases of 84 girls,” he said.

Dismayed over this recurring pattern, Choudhry noted, several groups and networks, including the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (not recognized by the government), are seeking to raise awareness of the forced marriage of underage girls in Pakistan with a publicity campaign, “Stop Converting Minorities.”

Register correspondent Anto Akkara is based in Bangalore, India.