A 13-year-old Christian girl who was allegedly kidnapped in Pakistan and forced to marry a 44-year-old man who made her convert to Islam has been rescued by police, officials said.
Arzoo Raja was abducted from her home in Karachi on October 13, and two days later her ‘husband’ produced a marriage certificate saying she was 18 and had converted to Islam, campaigners said.
The case led to protests in Karachi and Lahore but a Pakistani court upheld the marriage after her husband, Ali Azhar, claimed she had converted of her own free will.
Arzoo tried to run to her mother during the court hearing but her husband held her in a tight grip to stop her from leaving, it is alleged.
The public outcry and pressure from campaign groups prompted action.
On Monday, the Sindh High Court ordered police to find the teenager within five days and move her to a shelter home, a local government spokesperson said.
Hours later, Arzoo was rescued by police and her alleged abductor, Ali Azhar, was arrested.
The 13-year-old girl will remain in protective custody until a court hearing at the Sindh High Court on November 5.
Arzoo Raja (pictured) was abducted from her home in Karachi on October 13, and two days later her ‘husband’ produced a marriage certificate saying she was 18 and had converted to Islam, campaigners say
Arzoo’s father Raja said that his daughter had been abducted from the family home in Karachi’s Railway Colony after her parents went to work.
When police contacted the family two days later they said that the ‘husband’ had already obtained a marriage certificate, according to a Christian group called the Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS).
‘Very often young girls are threatened into giving statements to the court saying they have married and converted to Islam of their own free will,’ said CLAAS UK director Nasir Saeed.
‘It is a very sensitive matter for Pakistani Christians but sadly it is all falling on the deaf ears of the politicians and the authorities.
‘It is sad as the Pakistani police and courts have failed to respect their own laws, as well international standards, which are continuing to be ignored especially in forced conversion and forced marriage cases even in the higher courts.’
Arzoo allegedly had her name changed to Arzoo Fatima and a judge claimed that she had converted to Islam of her own free will.
Arzoo (pictured) tried to run to her mother during the court hearing but her husband held her in a tight grip to stop her from leaving, it is alleged
At a court hearing, the husband allegedly ‘held on tightly to her arm’ to stop her reaching her mother, who was not allowed to meet her daughter.
The certificate said she was 18, but the family has a birth certificate showing she is 13, according to a Catholic organisation called Aid to the Church in Need.
The charity says that Arzoo’s parents have lost their jobs and been threatened by kidnappers since their daughter disappeared.
According to figures from the campaign group Girls Not Brides, around 21 per cent of girls in Pakistan are married before the age of 18.
The group says that traditionalist customs and religious views mean some families believe they should ‘marry off their daughters once they reach puberty’.
Low levels of education are also described as ‘both a cause and a consequence’ of child marriage,’ it says.
In 2017, Pakistan’s government tried to crack down on child marriage by imposing prison sentences up to 10 years for offenders.