A Pakistani high court nullified the claim of marriage that a Muslim man had made after allegedly abducting a 13-year-old girl and forcing her to wed him.
The court ruled that the underage Arzoo Raja – who comes from a Christian family – could not legally marry the 44-year-old Ali Azhar. The justices also ruled that the girl had the choice of returning to her family or staying in the girl's home where she has lived for the duration of the case. After Raja indicated she did not want to live in either place, the court ordered her returned to the shelter, where she will be allowed to receive friends and family.
The court also directed police to arrest suspects in the case, including the cleric who conducted the wedding.
Similar cases where men abduct Christian girls and forcibly convert and marry them are common in Pakistan, with 156 cases reported between 2013 and 2019. In February, there was the case of 14-year-old Sneha, and in July, there was the case of a 15-year-old girl named Huma Younus. The kidnapping incident of a 12-year-old named Farah Shaheen also recently surfaced.
Azhar's lawyer had argued that marriage is legal once a girl reaches puberty, according to Islamic tradition and religious Shari'a law. Azhar was not charged with sexual assault or kidnapping.
Pakistani Christians have taken to petitioning the courts – which are often slow to act and face pressure from Islamic leaders – against forced conversion and underage marriage.
"We will move the [Supreme Court] in the coming days with the prayer to give a clear direction to the government, law enforcement agencies, and the subordinate judiciary to take concrete steps on this crucial issue," said Bishop Azad Marshall, the President of the National Council of Churches in Pakistan. "We pray for laws that defend our daughters. The state must fulfill its responsibility to legislate in order to protect its citizens, especially minor Christian girls."
The court is scheduled to take up the legitimacy of Raja's conversion in the near future, which could determine if she is returned to her parents.
🔦 The strategy of forcing a girl into Islam is often used by abductors as the Islamic nation has strict conversion and anti-blasphemy laws that often clash with secular laws such as bans on child marriage. In several notable cases, judges have prohibited girls from returning to "infidel" parents, believing it better they stay with their captors so they remain in Islamic teaching.