Princey, a 14-year-old Christian girl resident of the Ghazi area of Haripur in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa who went missing on the night of August 3 and was later allegedly forcibly converted and married to her abductor, has been recovered by the police and a court has sent her to a shelter home, reports said.
According to her mother Noreen Masih, Princey is a student of the 9th grade and was missing since August 3.
Noreen stated that two years ago a Muslim college student named Zulqarnain started following Princey when she used to go to school. She claimed that the accused had previously also abducted her daughter but they were able to recover her within 13 hours with the help of police and an influential person, Akhter Shah.
According to Noreen, Zulqarnain had signed an agreement in which he had promised to stay away from Princey, but he breached the deal by continuously encouraging her to marry him.
On Aug 3, when Princey again went missing, the girl’s family contacted Akhtar Shah for help but he turned down their request. They then reached out to the police for the girl’s recovery but a formal FIR [First Information Report] against the accused was registered after a week.
According to Noreen, Princey was born on Jan 10, 2007, and was 14 years old.
According to reports, the investigating officer of the case Shafiqur Rehman said that preliminary investigations had revealed that Princey had contracted court marriage with Zulqarnain in Swabi after converting to Islam of her own free will.
On August 13, the police produced Princey in a local court where she stated that she had converted to Islam of her own free will before marrying Zulqarnain and wanted to live with her husband.
However, the court has sent her to the Darul Aman (shelter home) while her alleged kidnapper, Zulqarnain, and his father Iqbal have been sent to jail on remand, reports stated.
‘SEX CRIMES BEING GIVEN RELIGIOUS COVER’
According to Church of Pakistan Moderator Bishop Azad Marshall, the modus operandi is the same in all cases of abduction of minority girls.
“First the abductors take the girls away, either by force or by seducing them (over a period of time) and then force them to make a declaration of faith change and marry them. It’s unfortunate that our police and judicial authorities are facilitating such crimes being committed under the cover of religion,” he said.
Child marriages are criminal under Pakistan’s Child Marriage Restraint laws. While the law recognises intercourse with a girl below 16 years of age with or without her consent as rape punishable by death, courts have repeatedly held that marriage of an underage Muslim girl cannot be termed invalid because Islamic law holds that a consenting girl who has reached puberty can marry.
“The government officials are not willing to accept the fact that forced conversion and marriage of minor Christian and Hindu girls is in reality a bid to cover abduction and rape of the girl child,” the bishop added.
The Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS) UK, a charity that deals with cases involving minorities, in a statement on Aug 16 stated that “Pakistan’s judiciary system has become a safety net for pedophiles and rapists who take advantage of the Islamic faith’s inherent good deeds to justify their criminal minds”.
A parliamentary panel on minorities earlier this year forwarded key legislation to the government on curbing forced conversions of minority girls, recommending that only adults should be allowed to change religion and only after appearing before a senior district judge.
The government of Prime Minister Imran Khan, however, has strongly opposed the legislation.
The Stymie Forced Religious Conversion Bill includes recommendations for validating conversion, stating, “Any person who is not a child and able and willing to convert to another religion will apply for a conversion certificate from the additional sessions judge of the area where the person ordinarily resides.”
Federal Minister for Religious Affairs Pir Noorul Haq Qadri, however, has categorically stated that the government is opposed to a restriction on religious conversion before the age of 18 years.
“If someone aged 14 years wishes to convert to some other religion, they could not be stopped,” the minister commented during a meeting of the Senate parliamentary committee on minorities’ rights on July 14.
“There are several incidents where someone expresses the wish to convert their religion out of their own choice before the age of 18. There are several examples in Islam of religious conversion before 18,” Qadri was quoted as saying during the meeting. He added that if someone wished to change their religion before reaching age 18, it was their choice, and that “a Nikah [Islamic marriage] or marriage before 18 was another discussion.”
The minister said that a proposal for setting the minimum age limit for marriage had been sent to the Council of Islamic Ideology.
Speaking on the issue of forced conversion and underage marriages of minority girls during a gathering on National Minorities Day on Aug 11, Punjab Minister for Human Rights and Minorities Affairs Ejaz Alam Augustine said that his ministry has prepared a draft on the issue of forced conversions.
“Things become difficult when every case is dealt with as forced conversion. We don’t want to be barriers between faith. This is a very sensitive matter for these people. We can’t change the mindset. We only want to stop those who convert minority females for marriage. Besides lawmaking, we need judicial reform, changes in Sharia law and social awareness about this critical issue,” he said.
According to Augustine, the church has a crucial role in imparting moral education to Christian girls. “It is our most important platform. Sessions on faith formation are needed for females as the ratio of such cases is higher in the Christian community. Lastly, everyone knows the limited role of a minorities minister in Pakistan, both at federal and provincial level,” he told the gathering.