A court in Pakistan's Punjab province has refused to give the custody of a 14-year-old Christian girl, who was allegedly kidnapped, forced to marry and convert to Islam, back to her parents, ruling that mental capacity gives more weight than age in child conversion cases.
The Lahore High Court last week rejected the petition filed by Gulzar Masih, a Roman Catholic rickshaw driver from Faisalabad city, seeking the recovery of his daughter, Chashman, from the custody of her alleged abductor, Muhammad Usman, Morning Star News reported.
The judge, Tariq Nadeem, said in his ruling Thursday that Islamic jurists look at mental capacity and not a child's age for conversion to Islam.
"It is a matter of faith. … Hazrat Ali was only 10 when he accepted Islam," he said, referring to the fourth caliph of Islam.
The judge said Muslim jurists generally regard the age of discernment for religious conversion as puberty and added that Chashman stated in her recorded statement before a judicial magistrate that she voluntarily contracted marriage with Usman.
Masih contacted police after his daughter failed to return home on July 27
Days after her disappearance, Masih received a video along with several documents claiming Chashman had run away and converted to Islam of her own free will, according to the U.S.-based persecution watchdog International Christian Concern.
Intercourse with a girl younger than 16 is considered rape in Pakistan, but advocates say men in many instances produce fake conversion and Islamic marriage certificates to defend themselves.
In a separate case in July, the Lahore High Court upheld a lower court ruling, giving custody of a 13-year Christian girl named Nayab Gill, who was also allegedly abducted, forced to marry and convert to Islam to her 30-year-old Muslim abductor.
A 2014 report by The Movement for Solidarity and Peace Pakistan estimated that hundreds of women and girls from Pakistan's Hindu and Christian communities are abducted, forcibly married and converted to Islam every year.
Religion is often injected into cases of sexual assault to place religious minority victims at a disadvantage, ICC previously reported, adding that perpetrators play upon religious biases to cover up and justify their crimes by introducing an element of religion.
International watchdog group Open Doors USA, which monitors persecution in over 60 countries, ranks Pakistan No. 5 on its 2021 World Watch List of countries where Christians face the most severe persecution.
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.