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