Date:  February 13, 2023

By Our Pakistan Correspondent

Police slow to respond to alleged forcible conversion. 

Sitara Arif, 15, kidnapped on Dec. 15, 2022 from Faisalabad, Pakistan. (Morning Star News)

LAHORE, Pakistan (Morning Star News) – Arif Gill said he lost hope of finding his 15-year-old daughter – abducted by a 60-year-old Muslim who forcibly married her and converted her to Islam – until police in Pakistan finally registered a case after nearly two months.

Sitara Arif, also known as Saira, was kidnapped on Dec. 15 by Rana Tayyab in the Yousafabad area of Faisalabad, Gill said. Tayyab is the husband of Naila Ambreen, a Muslim government school principal for whom Saira worked as domestic help.

“I went to the police station to report my daughter’s kidnapping, but they refused to accept my complaint and forced me out of the building,” said Gill, a physically handicapped Catholic.

He said he made repeated attempts to register a case against Tayyab, with police ignoring his pleas.

“Madam Naila is a government employee, and both she and her husband have considerable influence on the police, which is why they outright rejected my application,” Gill told Morning Star News. “After repeated humiliation and intimidation to stop pursuing the matter, I surrendered to my fate thinking that I won’t be able to see my daughter again. It’s been nearly two months since my wife and I haven’t seen our daughter or heard anything regarding her safety and well-being. Only God knows our pain and suffering since the day she was taken from us.”

Gill said poverty forced the family to send their daughter to work in a Muslim household.

“I’m unable to earn a livelihood, so my wife and daughter work as domestic helps to provide for the family,” he said. “We have always been very protective about our daughter, and it never occurred to us that she would be targeted by a man five times her age.”

Sitara is the oldest of Gill’s children.

Gill’s lawyer and chairman of the Minorities Alliance Pakistan, attorney Akmal Bhatti, said he learned of Gill’s ordeal on Feb. 3 and immediately arranged for the family to meet with Faisalabad’s regional police chief. Protesting police indifference, they demanded immediate registration of a First Information Report (FIR).

An FIR was registered against Tayyab on Feb. 4 at the Madina Town Police Station on the orders of the regional police chief, and officers have begun raids for his arrest and the recovery of Sitara, Bhatti said. The case was registered under Section 365-B of the Pakistan Penal Code relating to kidnapping, abducting or forcible marriage.

Bhatti said that when the police raided Tayyab’s house in Yousafabad, his wife Naila Ambreen handed the officials the Islamic marriage certificate between him and Sitara.

“This is the modus operandi in all cases involving forced marriages of underage minority girls,” Bhatti said. “The accused first rapes the victim and then uses the cover of an Islamic Nikah [marriage certificate] to escape punishment for this heinous crime.”

Though police are now acting, it is unfortunate that the family is deprived of justice because they are poor and Christian, Bhatti said.

“If the police had acted when the crime was first reported, the child could have been recovered sooner, but the prolonged delay has given the accused ample time to change his locations,” he said. “Some sources have told us that the accused has taken Sitara to Islamabad, and we are now pressing the police to find them there.”

Police took two of Tayyab’s relatives into custody for questioning, and later they were released.

“We are continuing to build pressure on the officials nonetheless, so that they don’t slack in their responsibility,” he said.

Bhatti said only young girls from minority groups are targeted for forcible marriage and conversion because their families are generally poor, with little resources to put up a fight in court.

“The country’s legal system is currently operating under a dual system of state and shariah [Islamic] laws, creating a conflict in the minimum age for marriage,” he said. “State law should prevail in cases of forced conversion and underage marriage of minority girls.”

The minimum age for marriage of girls is 16 in Punjab Province, where Faisalabad is located, and 18 in Sindh Province. Bhatti called for the federal government to set the minimum marriageable age to 18 across Pakistan.

Under Islamic law there is no specific minimum age for marriage, leading to instances where minority girls are forced into marriage with much older men after Islamic conversion. This leads to physical, emotional and sexual abuse.

Bhatti also criticized the National Commission on the Rights of Child and Punjab’s Child Protection & Welfare Bureau for their inaction amid a rise in cases violating the basic rights of the girl child.

“It is time for the state to take responsibility and protect our children from being exploited under the guise of religious conversion,” he said.

Emotional Wounds

Forced conversions and underage marriages are a long-standing issue in Pakistan.

At least 1,000 women from religious minorities, including Christians and Hindus, are forcibly converted and married annually in the country, Forbes magazine reported in February 2021, quoting human rights organizations.

Although Pakistan dismissed the report as “rubbish and baseless,” Forbes reported that the actual numbers could be much higher as many cases go unreported.

More than 60 cases of questionable conversions were reported in 2021-22, according to the Lahore-based Center for Social Justice. The victims included 30 Christians and 30 Hindus, with 70 percent of these victims less than 18 years old.

Pakistan ranked seventh on Open Doors’ 2023 World Watch List of the most difficult places to be a Christian, up from eighth the previous year.