The family of a 12-year-old Christian girl from Pakistan’s Punjab province who was abducted by a Muslim man earlier this month fears she's been forcefully converted to Islam and married to her abductor, just as many other girls have been in the past.
The girl, identified as Meerab Abbas, has been missing since Nov. 2, although police later arrested two suspects, Asia News reported, adding that she lived with her mother, Farzana, a 45-year-old widow who works as a domestic worker in the Sahiwal area.
Meerab was allegedly abducted by 22-year-old man, identified as Muhammad Daud, a native of Balochistan province.
The girl’s family believes the abductor took her to Balochistan to force her to convert to Islam and marry Daud.
A relative of the mother, Cecil George, was quoted as saying that Farzana’s mental health has deteriorated since her daughter’s abduction and she's has been admitted to a hospital.
“Mareeb is only 12 years old, and she cannot marry,” Zahid Augustine, a pastor in Sahiwal, was quoted as saying. “The perpetrators commit these crimes in the name of religion. We just want justice.”
A 2014 report by The Movement for Solidarity and Peace Pakistan estimated that hundreds of women and girls from Pakistan's Hindu and Christian communities are abducted, forcibly married and converted to Islam every year.
“Many victims are minors taken from their families, sexually assaulted, married to an assailant, and held in captivity justified by falsified marriage and conversion documents,” the U.S.-based persecution watchdog International Christian Concern says. “Violence, threats, and grooming tactics are used to compel victims to make statements in court supporting their captors.”
Religion is often injected into cases of sexual assault to place religious minority victims at a disadvantage, ICC previously reported, adding that perpetrators play upon religious biases to cover up and justify their crimes by introducing an element of religion.
In September, a court in Punjab province refused to give the custody of a 14-year-old Christian girl, who was allegedly kidnapped, forced to marry and convert to Islam, back to her parents, ruling that mental capacity gives more weight than age in child conversion cases.
The court rejected the petition filed by Gulzar Masih, a Roman Catholic rickshaw driver from Faisalabad city, seeking the regain custody of his daughter, Chashman, from her alleged abductor, Muhammad Usman, Morning Star News reported at the time.
The judge, Tariq Nadeem, said in his ruling that Islamic jurists look at mental capacity and not a child's age for conversion to Islam. "It is a matter of faith. … Hazrat Ali was only 10 when he accepted Islam," he said, referring to the fourth caliph of Islam.
International watchdog group Open Doors USA, which monitors persecution in over 60 countries, ranks Pakistan No. 5 on its 2021 World Watch List of countries where Christians face the most severe persecution.
Pakistan is also listed by the U.S. State Department as a "country of particular concern" for tolerating in or engaging in egregious violations of religious freedom.