06/11/2024, 17.31
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Laiba, 10 years old, converted to Islam and married off to her kidnapper

by Shafique Khokhar

The forced marriage of a Christian girl in Faisalabad is part of a tide of violence by Islamist groups against minorities in Punjab. After the murder of Nazir Masih, 72, falsely accused of blasphemy, the extremist TLP party wants the release of his attackers, who, it claims, acted out of "love for their faith". Advocacy groups lament that members of minorities now live in fear.

Faisalabad (AsiaNews) – Violence against Punjab’s Christian minority continues, a consequence of a rising Islamist tide that is sweeping the province.

After Nazir Masih, a 72-year-old shopkeeper, was lynched on 25 May in Sargodha by an angry mob on false accusations of blasphemy, another story came to light recently, that of Laiba, a 10-year-old Christian girl, daughter of Suhail Masih, from Faisalabad.

Following her abduction, she was raped, forcibly converted to Islam, and married off to her kidnapper, Irfan Masih. The abduction took place months ago, on 11 February, 2024, and her family filed a First Information Report (FIR No. 169/24) at the Roshanwala Police Station, Faisalabad.

This latest case underlines how minorities in Pakistan are under attack, persecuted because of their faith. In Punjab the number of cases of blasphemy and forced conversion is rising almost daily.

After the kidnapping, Laiba was handed over to a Muslim man, Shafaqat Shah, an influential person who favours Irfan. Unwilling to return the child to her parents, he placed her against her will in the case of a Women's Shelter (Dar-ul-aman) in Faisalabad.

The family received a statement, ostensibly from the girl saying that she had voluntarily embraced Islam, that she had not been raped or forced into marriage, and that she had gone to Dar-ul-aman of her own free will.

On 6 March 2024, the girl’s family received a copy of the marriage contract (nikkah), attesting to the union with Irfan Masih, a document that was patently false.

Masih, 35, also converted to Islam, taking the name of Muhammad; he already has a daughter who was also converted to Islam.

In the contract, to which no government paper is attached, Laiba's age is given as 17. According to the girl’s birth certificate issued by the National Database & Registration Authority (NADRA), she was born on 15 October 2013 and so is 10 years and 7 months old.

Upon receiving this information, police investigator Babar Sandhu told Suhail Masih that it will be very difficult for Laiba to return home because she accepted Islam.

In Faisalabad, activists have held several sit-ins and press conferences to save Laiba.

Although police eventually arrested Muhammad Irfan, Laiba is still held at the Dar-ul-Aman and Shafaqat Shah is not allowing her parents to meet her, thus helping the kidnapper’s cause.

Shazia George, a former member of the Punjab Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW), said civil society groups and national human rights organisations must tackle the practice of child and forced marriage. Although it is usually upheld by police and judiciary, such practice still constitutes an offence under the Child Marriage Restraint Act.

The marriage of a 10-year-old girl is above all an act of violence, yet it is widespread in the country, a threat to the rights of young people and source of deep concern for parents, who want protection.

In the meantime, while minorities face several threats and are raising their voice demanding protection and rights, the Islamist party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) is protesting in Sarogodha for the release of the people who took part in the lynching of Nazir Masih.

A recent speech by a TLP leader has gone viral on social media. Talking to his followers, he said there was no need to worry if a Chuhra (a derogatory term for Christians) died in Sargodha, because he was not innocent and had committed blasphemy.

The TLP leader added that the Muslims jailed in this case are innocent because their violence was committed for the sake of their faith. He called for their immediate release, otherwise the state will see a serious reaction.

These people “are openly engaging in hate speech against religious minorities, instigating people to commit violence, challenging the writ of the state and yet the state apparatus is silent,” said Samson Salamat, president of the Rwadari Tehreek, an interfaith civic movement, speaking to AsiaNews.

“Every member of a religious minority in Punjab lives in fear and terror. Unless there is a crackdown against the TLP and other extremist outfits, the lives of persecuted people, their properties and places of worship are under constant threat,” he added.

For Salamat, it would be important for the state to ban the TLP, eliminating it as a political party.

Beyond that, “There is a need for grand debate in parliament over the misuse of blasphemy laws along with a judicial inquiry into all the blasphemy incidents from Shanti Nagar to the lynching of Nazir Masih.”

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