PAKISTAN: CHILDREN IN CONVERSION DISPUTE SENT TO SHELTER


Court questions whether girls were free from outside pressure.

ISTANBUL, July 29 (Compass Direct News) – A Pakistani court today took over supervision of two children in a custody battle that appears to hinge on their disputed conversion from Christianity to Islam.

At a hearing in Multan, 200 miles southwest of Lahore, Judge Saghir Ahmed ordered Aneela and Saba Masih, 10 and 13 respectively, to be temporarily placed in a government-run women’s shelter.

The provincial high court judge said that he did not believe the children had been free from external pressure when testifying that they had converted to Islam. Ahmed sent the sisters to Multan’s Dar-Ul-Aman women’s shelter, forbidding them to see their parents and Muslim caretakers until an August 4 hearing, when they will again testify.

According to a lawyer representing the Christian parents, the court’s emphasis on the genuineness of the children’s conversion is irrelevant.

“It is not a matter of embracing Islam – the parents have a right to their children under the law,” said advocate Rashid Rehman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

But according to Rehman, the judge may have acted under pressure from fanatical Muslim clerics.

The sisters’ uncle, who also attended today’s hearing, agreed.

“Muslim clerics have threatened the judge that if he allows the girls to go with the Christians, they will kill him,” Khalid Raheel said.

Aneela and Saba Masih attended today’s hearing in the company of Amjad Ali, a Muslim who married the elder sister on June 27, the day after she disappeared. The girls’ father has accused Ali and his relatives of kidnapping the children while they were traveling from their home to visit their uncle in Sarwar Shaheed, northwest of Multan.

Younis Masih only discovered his daughters’ location when he found that Ali and another local, Muhammed Arif Bajwa, had filed a case against him for custody of his children. Their claim was based on Aneela and Saba Masih’s alleged conversion to Islam.

Under one interpretation of Islamic law, a non-Muslim may not have custody of a Muslim.

Bajwa was unavailable for comment when Compass attempted to contact him by telephone multiple times today.

In a July 12 ruling, District and Sessions Court Judge Main Naeem Sardar upheld the Islamic law rationale, awarding the alleged kidnappers custody of the girls based on their conversion to Islam. Sardar refused to accept the children’s birth certificates as proof of their age, relying solely on 13-year-old Saba Masih’s testimony that she was 17 and had converted and married of her own volition.

Under Pakistani law, a woman can marry without the approval of legal guardians at the age of 16.

Younis Masih appealed the decision with the help of lawyer Rehman, appearing today before Ahmed at the Lahore High Court’s Multan bench. During the entire hearing, Ali and nine relatives remained around the children in the courtroom, issuing them instructions, Rehman said.

“Even when the court allowed the girls to approach their parents, [Amjad Ali’s relatives] were standing around them,” said the lawyer.

According to Rehman, the 13-year-old girl angrily shoved her mother away when the judge allowed the two to approach one another.

“I do not want to talk with you, I don’t want to go with you, I don’t recognize you,” the child shouted, according to Rehman. “I am a Muslim and you are a Christian.”

The lawyer said that Aneela Masih, 10, was unable to respond to questions from the judge and appeared to be in a daze. The young child’s uncle, who also attended the hearing, said that she had been especially attached to her father.

Raheel said that the children’s parents were devastated by their daughters’ response to them at the court.

After the hearing, Younis Masih told Compass that he and his wife had begun fasting and praying for their daughters’ safe return.

“Please pray that the Lord protects their minds and brings them back to us,” he said.

Lawyer Rehman accused police of taking sides with the Christian girls’ kidnappers at today’s hearing. He said that Sub-Inspector Muhammad Aslam, charged with delivering the girls to the women’s shelter, had allowed Ali and his relatives to mingle with the sisters following the hearing. But when the children’s mother approached them, he blocked her path.

Contacted by Compass, Aslam claimed to have no knowledge of the case. Muzaffargarh SP Investigation Official Chaudry Tajeen was also unavailable when Compass contacted his office to ask why police had refused to file a kidnapping case when the Christian children first went missing.

Last week Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif called on provincial police to take measures against an increase in incidents of kidnapping for ransom. According to a July 22 article in Pakistani daily The News, Sharif ordered officials to acquire equipment to track telephone calls from kidnappers demanding ransom.

Report from Compass Direct News

PAKISTAN: COURT GRANTS CUSTODY OF GIRLS TO KIDNAPPERS


Christian parents lose daughters because minors converted to Islam; appeal pending.

ISTANBUL, July 18 (Compass Direct News) – A Pakistani couple has appealed a court decision to award custody of their two daughters, 10 and 13, to the children’s alleged kidnappers. The court based its custody decision on the girls’ conversion to Islam.

Judge Main Naeem Sardar ruled Saturday (July 12) that Saba Masih, 13, and Aneela Masih, 10, had become Muslims, invalidating their Christian parents’ right to legal guardianship.

“He said that because the parents are Christians and because the girls told the court that they adopted Islam, their relationship has ceased,” lawyer Rashid Rehman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) told Compass. Under a common interpretation of Islamic law, a Christian cannot have custody of a Muslim.

The sisters appeared in a Muzaffargarh District and Sessions court in the company of 16 Muslim men and were given five minutes to testify that their conversion was genuine, human rights activist Ashfaq Fateh said. It was the first time that Younis Masih and his wife had seen their daughters since they disappeared on June 26 while traveling to their uncle’s nearby home in Sarwar Shaheed, 150 miles southwest of Lahore.

Saba Masih told the court that she and her younger sister had been inspired by Islam and had run away to Muhammed Arif Bajwa, whom the parents say kidnapped the children near their uncle’s home. Stating her age as 17, Saba Masih said she had changed her name to Fatma Bibi, a traditional Muslim name, and married a Muslim man, Amjad Ali. Under Pakistani law a woman can marry without the approval of legal guardians at the age of 16.

“The judge did not give me even a minute to speak with my daughters,” Younis Masih told rights activist Ashfaq Fateh. “My girls have been with these men for the last 20 days; they have pressured them to change their minds.”

The children’s parents were neither allowed to testify nor submit birth certificates and school records as evidence of the girls’ true ages.

“Will she herself determine what her age is?” said lawyer Rehman, who appealed the case to the Lahore High Court’s branch in Multan city.

Justice Saghir Ahmed today summoned the two children and Saba Masih’s new husband Ali to an initial appeal hearing set for July 29. Rehman said he believed the court would only take into consideration the fact that the girls are minors and therefore legally belong with their mother.

After his two daughters disappeared last month, Younis Masih was summoned to the local police station on June 28. Muhammad Arif Bajwa and Ali had registered a case with police for custody of Masih’s daughters based on their conversion to Islam.

Station House Officer Imtiaz Chagwani refused the father’s request to register a kidnapping case.

Muzaffargarh SP Investigation official Chaudry Tajeen said he was unable to comment on why Chagwani refused to file the complaint when Compass contacted him yesterday. He confirmed that Chagwani has since been replaced by Munawar Gulzar at the Sarwar Shaheed police station, but was unavailable when Compass called back for further details.

Younis Masih fears that his daughters’ new guardians have sexually abused them and claims that the men run a prostitution ring. Lawyer Rehman said that though there is no hard evidence to prove these claims, the father’s fears are legitimate.

“Contracting marriage with a minor girl could mean that they want to have control of her with the intention of child prostitution or something else…” the lawyer said.

According to the HRCP’s most recent annual report on human rights in Pakistan, “crime against children, especially kidnapping,” remains a serious problem. In Muzaffargarh district, where Aneela and Saba Masih lived, 24 children were freed in March 2007 from a “mini-jail” at an Islamic seminary, where they had been tortured and sodomized, the HRCP reported.

According to Rehman, religious minorities are an easy target for kidnappers both because they are typically underprivileged and because of religious bias against them.

“Local police and judges have their subconscious mindset that if you help Muslims [in such cases], it’s a very noble cause and a very religious cause,” the lawyer said.

Christians make up less than 2 percent of Pakistan’s 168 million citizens.

Report from Compass Direct News