The Sindh High Court (SHC) has handed the custody of Arzoo, a teenage Christian girl who has converted to Islam and married a Muslim neighbour, to her parents after she sought to leave the shelter house.
However, the court’s decision to validate Arzoo’s conversion has been criticized by rights advocates and the church leadership, who think that the judges exceeded their mandate by bringing up the conversion matter in their ruling.
The court had sent 14-year-old Arzoo Raja, now known as Arzoo Fatima, to the shelter home on Nov 23 last year after she refused to go with her parents. The court, however, gave her the opportunity to ponder over her life choices.
After living at the shelter home for a year, she filed her application requesting to leave the shelter home and move back in with her Christian parents of her own free will. The counsel for Arzoo’s husband argued that since the applicant had converted to Islam, she could not be returned to her parents because they were Christians.
An SHC division bench comprising Justice Mohammad Karim Khan Agha and Justice Arshad Hussain Khan asked Arzoo if she had converted to Islam of her own free will. She replied in the affirmative, and said she wanted to go with her parents.
Her parents assured the court that they would not pressurize her into changing her religion again, and would allow her to practice her religion freely and adopt her own life choices in this respect.
They also assured the court that they would not cause any physical or mental harm to their daughter for converting to Islam or for initially deciding to reside at the shelter home, saying that they would take good care of her.
After recording the undertaking of the parents, the court ordered that Arzoo be returned from the shelter home to her parents’ home, where she would now reside and be looked after by them.
The court ordered that until Arzoo reaches the age of 18 years, every three months her parents would bring her before the relevant SHO, who would certify if she was being treated well by them in terms of the court’s orders.
The bench said if the SHO’s certificate was negative, the matter would be put up before the court. The bench ordered Arzoo not to meet her alleged husband Ali Azhar, who was apparently facing a criminal trial under the child marriages restraint act and for the offence of rape.
The SHC had ordered that Arzoo’s case was to be investigated in accordance with the child marriages restraint act after a medical board declared her a minor.
The age requirement for marriage is currently 16 in all Pakistan’s provinces except the southern province of Sindh, where it is 18.
‘CONVERSION WAS NOT THE ISSUE’
Arzoo’s alleged abduction, conversion and marriage to Azhar last year resulted in a complex legal battle by her parents, who sought her custody and annulment of what they believe was a forced child marriage and religious conversion.
Jibran Nasir, the lawyer representing Arzoo’s parents, said that the case was not regarding the girl’s conversion to Islam but of handing her custody to her parents.
“Our case was for the girl’s recovery, which has been granted. Her conversion was not the subject,” said Nasir, who’s a known human rights activist. He added that their other case was getting the accused Azhar punished under the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act and for rape. Azhar was released on bail earlier this year.
To a question on whether the girl can revert to her Christian faith after some time, Advocate Nasir said there was no religious or legal bar on a minor for reconsidering their decision to convert.
“If she was indeed intimidated into converting to Islam and some days later she finds the courage to give a statement in court, the judge won’t object to it,” he told Kross Konnection.
Pakistan’s leading human rights lawyer Saif Ul Malook criticized the SHC verdict.
“I fail to understand why the judges had to bring up the conversion issue when the matter was related only to the girl’s application for relocating to her parents’ home. They have signed her death warrant if you ask me,” he said.
Malook said the SHC verdict should be challenged in the Supreme Court because the judges transgressed their jurisdiction.
“There’s no legal provision that empowers an SHO to summon the girl after every three months to check her wellbeing and whether she’s sticking to her Muslim faith or not. This is an absurd judgment,” said the lawyer who is known for winning freedom for Pakistan’s most high-profile blasphemy accused Aasia Bibi.
According to Adv Malook, the parents were unlikely to win a conviction against the accused under rape charges.
“The girl has repeatedly claimed that she converted to Islam and married Azhar of her own free will. The accused has also admitted to having a sexual relationship with her because she was his supposed wife according to Sharia.
“In this situation the only offence the accused has prima facie committed is the violation of the child marriage restraint act, which bars marriage under the age of 18. His release on bail is a sign that he’ll escape punishment,” he told Kross Konnection.
Child marriages are criminal under Pakistan’s Child Marriage Restraint laws. While Pakistani 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.
Church of Pakistan Moderator/President Bishop Dr Azad Marshall said that the verdict binding the child to stick to her new religion was a cause of serious concern to the community.
“It’s unfortunate that our judges do not ascertain the pressures coming to bear on girls when they make declarations of consent before trial and high courts, nor do they take into account their intellectual, emotional and social maturity,” he said.
Bishop Marshall said that such declarations of consent are not investigated to ascertain whether they are voluntary or result from threats, psychological abuse and conditioning and fear of social stigma and rebuke.
The senior church leader reiterated his demand for legislation against forced conversions of minority girls, stressing that setting an age bar and giving the ‘new converts’ time to reconsider their decision before being granted a court approved conversion certificate was the only way to stop child conversions under the guise of Islamic marriages.
REJECTED BILL IMPERILS EU, US TRADE EXEMPTIONS
On Sept 23, the Federal Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony had returned the draft of the Anti-Forced Conversion Bill to the Federal Ministry for Human Rights after raising objections on several clauses of the proposed legislation.
The Religious Affairs Ministry stated that it was opposed to the clauses related to the 18-year age bar on religion conversion, appearance before a judge, and a 90-day waiting period, saying these restrictions were anti-Islamic, illegal and violated the fundamental constitutional rights of an individual.
Meanwhile, the European Parliament has stated that Pakistan’s duty-free market access was linked with “rapid implementation” of international commitments on human and minority rights. The EU parliament has also adopted two resolutions that would put that access in jeopardy if Pakistan fails to adhere.
In an interview with a local news outlet, European Parliament Vice President Heidi Hautala said the two resolutions were a “signal” to the Pakistani government that there was no guarantee that the GSP Plus scheme will continue without further implementation of the UN conventions.
“We would like to see a bit more rapid implementation of the laws, particularly anti-torture law, sexual violence, and protection of women and children rights,” she added.
The US State Department has also listed Pakistan as a country of particular concern under the US International Religious Freedom Act.