A 14-year-old Christian girl, who was ordered by a court to return to the Muslim man who had abducted her and forcibly married and converted her to Islam, has escaped and is in hiding in Pakistan’s Faisalabad area, according to reports.
Catholic teenager Maira Shahbaz has fled the home of her alleged husband, Mohamad Nakash, weeks after the Lahore High Court ruled that Shahbaz was legally married to her abductor and ordered her to be returned to his custody, the U.S.-based persecution watchdog International Christian Concern reported.
Judge Raja Muhammad Shahid Abbasi ruled earlier this month that Shahbaz must return to the home of the married man who had kidnapped her at gunpoint during the COVID-19 lockdown and whom the judge referred to as her “husband,” on the basis that she had converted to Islam.
“With this ruling, no Christian girl in Pakistan is safe,” a family friend and advocate, Lala Robin Daniel, was quoted as saying at the time.
“The order is unprecedented and will likely mean Maria will never return to her family,” Shazia George, a Pakistani human rights activist, told ICC after the ruling.
Judge Abbasi overruled a lower court’s decision that she be allowed to leave her captor’s home and stay at a women’s shelter until her case was heard by the Lahore High Court.
The Christian girl was abducted by Nakash and two accomplices while she was walking home in the Madina Town area in Faisalabad District. According to witnesses, the abductors forced Shahbaz into a car and fired gunshots into the air as they fled the scene, ICC reported earlier.
Nakash, a married man, was accused of presenting a false marriage certificate to the lower court that said Maira was 19 years old and they had wed in October 2019. The document not only failed to provide proof of consent from Nakash’s first wife, with whom he has two children, but the Muslim cleric whose name is listed on the certificate had denied involvement in the sham marriage.
Lawyer Daniel earlier said that if Maira stayed in Nakash’s home, she might be forced to become a sex worker.
“This case has highlighted the wicked tactics used to force victims to make statements in favor of their abductors before the courts in Pakistan,” Suneel Malik, a human rights defender in Pakistan, told ICC. “Victims are threatened with dire consequences if they speak the truth in court.”
William Stark, ICC’s regional manager for South Asia, said, “The threats that Maira’s abductor has issued against Maira and her family are very real and must be taken seriously. We are also deeply disappointed by the High Court’s decision to return Maira to the custody of her abductor. This has placed Maira’s safety at risk and is likely why she and her family have gone into hiding.”
Stark added that Pakistan must do more to combat the issue of abductions, forced marriages and forced conversions to Islam. “For too long perpetrators have used the issue of religion to justify their crimes against Pakistan’s religious minorities,” he said.
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 community 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, ICC said. Playing upon religious biases, perpetrators know they can cover up and justify their crimes by introducing an element of religion.