By Mark Michael

Bishop Azad Marshall, the Church of Pakistan’s new moderator, says that despite a recent setback, he remains undaunted in his efforts to secure legal protection against the forced conversion to Islam and marriage of Christian girls.

On July 14, Pakistan’s Supreme Court rejected on technical grounds a constitutional petition filed by Marshall under Article 184(3) of the nation’s constitution, which gives the court jurisdiction over matters of public importance related to the protection of fundamental rights of Pakistan’s citizens. Justice Mushir Alam stated that the petition was improper because it did not address an individual case or grievance.

Marshall strongly objected to the ruling, telling Morning Star News, “This is not sustainable because the matter is not restricted to an individual case. Rather, it relates to the entire Christian population in Pakistan and the violation of their fundamental rights.”

He said that he plans to resubmit his petition in connection with the case of Nayab Gill, a 13-year old Roman Catholic girl from Gujranwala, who was kidnapped from her home in May and forced to convert and marry Saddam Hayat, 30-year-old Muslim man.

Marshall has been an influential advocate for government action on the issue for several years. In December 2020, while serving as president of Pakistan’s National Council of Churches, he helped secure a promise by Prime Minister Imran Khan to order an official investigation into the problem. He also listed “the forced conversion and the underage marriage of minority girls” among the “extraordinary challenges” faced by Pakistan’s Christians in a May interview with Lahore’s The Nation.

The Centre for Social Justice, a public interest group, reports that 162 questionable conversions of women and girls were reported in Pakistani media between 2013 and November 2020.  44% of these were Christians, and 33% were girls aged between 11 and 15. Christians make up only 1.59% of the population of Pakistan, the fifth-largest country, with 225 million people. The Church of Pakistan is a united Protestant church affiliated with the Anglican, Methodist, and Reformed churches.

The actual numbers of forced conversions are believed by many to be much higher. Marshall’s recent petition citied a 2014 study by the Movement for Solidarity and Peace in Pakistan, which estimates that as many as 700 Christian girls were forced into conversion and marriage each year. Christian religious freedom charity Open Doors claimed in its 2021 World Watch List report that about 1,000 Pakistani Christian women were victims between November 2019 and October 2020.

Pakistan’s Child Marriage Restraint Law makes child marriage illegal and declares sexual intercourse with children under 16 to be statutory rape. But many courts defer to Islamic jurisprudence, which allows for marriages of younger Muslim children.

“This principle has been repeatedly invoked by judges in trial courts and high courts while handing over custody of Christian girls to their Muslim abductors,” Bishop Marshall pointed out. “Ironically, this Islamic principle is often ignored while deciding cases of minor Muslim girls, and they are returned to their families instead of their abductors/husbands.

“The police and lower judiciary are facilitating child marriages and conversions. Police officials deliberately avoid adding sections related to seduction of a child, abduction and rape in First Information Reports while the trial courts, and even high courts, rely solely on the victim child’s statement that they are adults and have converted to Islam willingly.”

In the Nayab Gill case, a local court judge upheld the validity of her Islamic marriage certificate, even after her parents presented documentation demonstrating her actual age to be 13. Her parents say that the judge ignored their claim that Nayab was lying about her age and consent to conversion under threat, even though she had bruises on her face.

Marshall told Morning Star News that he is working with human rights lawyer Saif Ul Malook in petitioning the Supreme Court to allow Nayab’s family to recover her and to reinvestigate the case.

“I’m quite hopeful that Nayab’s case will draw the attention of the superior judiciary and government towards this crucial issue once again, and a mechanism would be developed to stop such atrocities against the minority girls under the cover of religion,” Marshall said.