With both minors saying they had converted to Islam, lawyers feared worse.

ISTANBUL, September 15 (Compass Direct News) – Christian human rights lawyers in Pakistan saw a partial legal victory in a judge’s ruling last week that one of two kidnapped girls be returned to her Christian parents. The judge further ruled that her sister be free to choose whether to go with the Muslim man who allegedly forced her to convert and marry him.

Justice Malik Saeed Ejaz ruled on Tuesday (Sept. 9) that 10-year-old Aneela Masih be returned to her parents – an unprecedented legal victory for Christian parents of a girl who supposedly converted to Islam, according to one lawyer – while leaving her sister, 13-year-old Saba Masih, free to choose whether to go with Amjad Ali, a Muslim man who married her after the June 26 kidnapping.

Saba Masih, whose birth certificate indicates that she is now 13 but who testified that she is 17, said she did not want to return to her parents and tried to keep her little sister from returning to them. Their Muslim captors have repeatedly threatened the two girls that their parents would harm them if they returned.

The older sister is not willing to meet with any of the family members or her parents, said Rashid Rehman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

“It’s normal behavior,” he told Compass. “She was tutored and brainwashed by the family of her husband Ali, and naturally they made up her mind that her parents will hurt her and treat her inhumanely. In fact that will never happen. Her family is really peaceful, and remained so peaceful the whole time the case was heard in high court.”

After more than three hours of heated legal arguments in the Multan branch of Lahore’s High Court, the judge deemed the oldest child sui juris – capable to handle her own affairs – based on her testimony that she is 17 years old and on a Lahore medical board’s ruling that she is between 15 and 17. The medical board may have been pressured to declare Saba Masih as an adult, according to the parents’ lawyers.

Conditions set in the ruling called for the parents not to “interfere” with Aneela Masih’s religious beliefs, that they be allowed to visit Saba Masih and that the groom’s family pay them 100,000 rupees (US$1,316) according to Pakistani marriage tradition.

Raised in a Christian family in the small town of Chowk Munda, the two girls were kidnapped on June 26 while traveling to visit their uncle in Sarwar Shaheed, northwest of Multan. Saba Masih was married to Ali the next day, and the kidnappers filed for custody of the girls on June 28 based on their alleged forced conversion to Islam.

Islamic jurisprudence and Pakistani law do not recognize the forced marriages of minors.


‘Pleased with Outcome’

“We are pleased with the outcome,” said Joseph Francis, head of the Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS). He said, however, that the verdict was not complete without the return of Saba Masih to her family.

Francis and two other CLAAS lawyers were present at the Sept. 9 judgment despite repeated threats against their office over the course of the hearings.

CLAAS lawyer Akbar Durrani told Compass that it was the first time in his life that he had seen such a decision. “In my experience they have not given us the custody of minor girls even as young as 9 years old that have been declared Muslim,” said Durrani, who has been practicing law in Pakistan for 18 years. “It is a legal victory.”

As a minor, though, Aneela Masih’s previous declaration that she had converted from Christianity to Islam was not explicitly recognized. Calling the lawyers into his private chamber to present options before ruling, according to the parents’ lawyers, the judge said he would make no mention of the girls’ supposed conversion to Islam.

“This was a very favorable thing for us,” said Durrani. “He said, ‘I’m only going to decide the custody,’ so we decided this is acceptable to us.”

In his private chamber, the judge gave them different options, warning them that if they didn’t cooperate or accept his proposals he would make his own judgment. In the end he said he would hand the little girl to her mother and set the other free.

“Wherever she wants to go she can go,” the judge told the parties. “But if she wants to go with you she can go, and if she wants to go to her husband she can go.”

The girls, their mother and Ali were then invited into the judge’s chamber, where the judge announced the decision to them.

Durrani said that Aneela Masih went to her mother willingly, while her older sister gave a cry and tried to pull the 10-year-old back to her.

“The minor resisted for a fraction of a second to go to the mother,” Durrani said. “The little girl was under pressure; every time she was instructed by her elder sister not to talk to her mother.”

Her mother hugged her, and the lawyer said the little girl seemed very comfortable in her lap. There her mother tried to remove the veil from her daughter to look at her, but she resisted. Outside the courtroom, however, Aneela Masih removed the veil herself and later accepted food and drink. The girls had been fasting during Ramadan.

The lawyers said it was clear from the 10-year-old girl’s reactions that she was confused from the ordeal.


Supreme Court Question

Lawyers for the parents are weighing the options and feasibility of getting the oldest daughter back through the Supreme Court.

On Friday (Sept. 12), the girls’ uncle, Khalid Raheel, who has spearheaded the efforts to get them back, told CLAAS lawyers that Aneela was readjusting into her life at home. Raheel asked the family lawyers that they continue to try to get Saba back.

Rehman said he does not think the case would stand in the Supreme Court. “She willingly said, ‘I don’t want to go with my parents,’” he said.

Durrani and Francis, however, said they would continue to fight for her. “We’ll go to the Supreme Court for Saba,” said Francis.

“We will try getting the statement of Aneela and then will re-open the case,” said Durrani, adding that Aneela Masih had told her family, “Please get her back from that place.”

Rehman told Compass in a phone interview that Saba Masih’s statement that she is 17, her supposed embrace of Islam and her marriage by consent will make getting her back very difficult.

“She has admitted the marriage at the court and produced the marriage papers and has claimed that she’s over 16, so it was very difficult for us to prove our case that she’s a minor girl… because it is denied by Saba herself,” said Rehman.

He explained that the only way to secure the oldest daughter’s return to her family would be by proving she is a minor, something virtually impossible at this point because of her testimony. The court has refused to admit her birth certificate as evidence.

Saba Masih still refuses to communicate with her parents.


‘Frightened, Small Girl’

In court last week, both sisters sat in hijab dress fully veiled next to a policewoman from the Dar Ul Rahman women’s shelter, where the two girls had stayed since a July 29 hearing.

Their mother tried to talk to them and show them photos. Durrani said that Aneela Masih was responsive to her mother, but her older sister would pull her away, forbidding her from talking to her.

The judge had ruled that the girls stay at the shelter in order to think of their alleged conversion to Islam away from external pressures. Lawyers for the parents said that while in the shelter the girls were continually harassed and threatened that their family would not take them back.

Aneela Masih stated to the lawyers and her parents after the court decision that Ali’s family and their captors told them that everyone was Muslim – the lawyers, the judge, society – and that their parents could not take them back.

Knowing the attention the case of the two girls had attracted, Durrani said, the judge left the case till last. Yet the courtroom, he said, was full of “those who had kidnapped the girls, their supporters, the Islamic fanatics; all these were present in the court and interested in the hearing of the case.”

From the outset at last week’s hearing, the judge wanted to ask Aneela Masih questions about Islam to extract a statement on which he could rule on her custody. Durrani and colleague Justin Gill fought against the lawyer and the judge, arguing that as the 10-year-old was a minor, her statement on faith could not be valid and that she must be returned to her mother.

“We concentrated our efforts on Aneela, that at least we should have some relief to get her back and then we can fight in the Supreme Court if we wish to go for any other thing,” he said, referring to the older sister’s case.

The judge had decided to postpone the verdict till this Thursday (Sept. 18) and place the girls back in the Dar Ul Rahman shelter, where their mother could visit them for two hours every day. But the CLAAS lawyers said they feared waiting would only work against their case in the long run, making it more difficult to gain custody of the younger sister if both were exposed to more harassment and possible brainwashing.

“Even if she is a Muslim and has changed her religion, according to Islam a mother is the best custodian of the child,” Durrani said he and Gill argued.

Rehman said that Aneela Masih seemed frightened and, according to information he had obtained, the girl was afraid of her abductors and her own family even while in the shelter.

“She was a frightened, small girl,” he said. “They told her that if she returned to her parents she’d be treated unkindly.”


Threats, Car Chase

On Sept. 8, the day before the hearing, while traveling together from Lahore to Multan, the three lawyers for the Christian parents – Francis, Durrani and Gill – received threatening calls from the supporters of the girls’ kidnappers.

That night while, on their way back from dinner to a bishop’s house where they were staying in Multan, the CLAAS team was approached by armed men on motorcycles who threatened them, warning them to not go to the judgment hearing the next day.

“They said, ‘You should not be in court or you will be responsible for the consequences,’” said Durrani.

When nearby police saw the scene and approached, the armed men left the scene.

“We were afraid, but we knew we had to go,” Durrani said.

After the hearing, while traveling back to Lahore, Durrani said that Muslim fanatics chased them for about 100 kilometers (62 miles).

“Then we went to another city and got to the highway from another shortcut,” he said.

Durrani said the lawyers have many cases like this, causing them concern for their own safety.

“It is not the first time we get threats, but by the grace of God, and by the refuge of our Holy Ghost we are safe,” he said. “Every time we know the prayers of our church and other Christians are with us, which is why we are able to get the victory for our Lord.”

Report from Compass Direct News


Muslim kidnappers continue to pressure girls at shelter: ‘Your parents will kill you.’

ISTANBUL, August 20 (Compass Direct News) – A custody battle in Pakistan over two Christian girls kidnapped and allegedly forced to convert to Islam remained inconclusive after a hearing today, with rights advocates for the family suspecting Muslim fundamentalists of pressuring the minors and a medical board.

Judge Malek Saeed Ejaz of the Lahore High Court’s Multan Branch set the next hearing for Sept. 9 after a two-hour proceeding. Lawyers for the Masih family said that if the girls are not returned to their parents at the next hearing they will appeal to the Pakistani Supreme Court.

Until then, Aneela and Saba Masih, 10 and 13 respectively, will remain at Multan’s Dar Ul Rahman women’s shelter, where they have stayed since a July 29 hearing.

Islamic jurisprudence and Pakistani law do not recognize the forced marriages of minors. The judge’s decision to extend the case was based on Saba Masih’s testimony that she is 17 and on a Lahore medical board’s ruling that she is between 15 and 17.

The medical board, however, may have been pressured to declare Saba Masih an adult, lawyers said.

“This is a case of conversion from Christianity to Islam, so we can say there is pressure, especially from fundamentalist groups,” said Aneeqa Maria, legal advocate for the Lahore-based Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS)

Rights advocates said the girls themselves may have come under pressure while at the women’s shelter, although they were sent there with the purpose of escaping coercion by the Muslim family that captured them.

The Muslim family continues to threaten the girls at the shelter, said Rashid Rehman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

“They are giving them misinformation regarding their parents, saying, ‘If you return to your parents, they will kill you,’” he said.

The court has not accepted Saba Masih’s baptismal records or birth certificates as evidence of her minor status in previous hearings.

Pakistani law requires females to be at least 16 to marry without permission of legal guardians. A minor cannot marry regardless of his or her religion.

Both sides agree Aneela Masih is a minor and that therefore custody of her cannot be granted to the captor’s family. The lawyers for the defense argue, however, that custody of her should be given to her older sister and not to her Christian parents.

A strict interpretation of Islamic law does not allow non-Muslim parents to have custody of a Muslim child.

The prosecution says there is no proof the girls converted freely to Islam, and that they should be given back to their Christian parents. In fact, the Muslim family’s claim to custody of the girls doesn’t even meet the legal muster of Islamic jurisprudence, Rehman argued.

“There is no example in Islamic history of minor girls who converted to Islam without permission or the presence of their legal guardian,” he said. In Islamic law, “women do not have full capacity to give testimony in court. How is it possible to accept the statement they have embraced Islam?”


Possible Outcomes

Maria of CLAAS speculated that the court would give custody of Aneela Masih to her parents at the Sept. 9 hearing. Since both sides agree she is a minor, the prosecution will argue she doesn’t understand what has been happening and could not have freely chosen to convert.

Rehman said pursuing custody of the older sister would be more difficult.

“It will not be fruitful for us, because Saba herself has claimed she is married,” he said. “She has attained the age of puberty and is claiming to have married by her own choice. She has also claimed she is 17 years old. She will likely be given custody to her Muslim husband.”

If both girls aren’t returned to their Christian parents, then the prosecution plans to appeal to the Pakistan Supreme Court.

An Aug. 6 hearing at the Lahore High Court’s Multan branch ruled that the district medical board of Multan should examine Saba Masih to determine if she was old enough to marry of her own volition. In previous hearings she claimed she was 17.

A crowd of about 20 people gathered at the courthouse today and shouted threats at the Masih family and their lawyers. Among those in the crowd were Islamic scholars from Mufti groups, which have also made threatening telephone calls to CLAAS for trying to give Christian parents custody of Muslim children, Maria said.

The two sisters were kidnapped on June 26 while traveling to visit their uncle in Sarwar Shaheed, northwest of Multan. Their parents say local fruit vendor Muhammad Arif Bajwa kidnapped them in Chawk Munda, a small town in south Punjab.

Saba Masih was married to Amjad Ali, a Muslim, the next day. Bajwa and Ali registered a case with the police on June 28 for custody of the girls based on their alleged conversion to Islam.

Younis Masih, the girls’ father, claimed Ali and his family kidnapped the girls while they were en route to visit their uncle. He only learned of their location after the men filed for custody and summoned Masih to the police station.

In a July 29 hearing, Judge Saghir Ahmed said he did not believe the girls converted to Islam of their own volition and ordered them to be sent to a government women’s shelter so that they could think freely until the Aug. 6 hearing.

The girls’ father has tried to gain custody of his daughters by appealing to Islamic authorities. On July 10 he obtained an edict from Chawk Munda imam Mohammad Abdul Majeed on whether his 13-year-old daughter’s marriage was valid according to Islam.

Majeed replied that a 13-year-old girl’s marriage is valid if she has attained puberty and freely chosen to convert. If Saba Masih’s conversion were coerced, then her marriage would be invalid because Islam does not allow compulsion in religion, he said.

Majeed’s ruling, however, was not accepted in previous hearings since he declined to appear in court and testify.


Kidnapping and Threats

Today’s hearing in Multan came during increased kidnappings of Christian minors and threats against legal activists in Pakistan, a majority-Muslim country of 168 million.

Phone threats from Islamic groups have forced Maria, lawyer for a Christian legal advocacy group and counsel for the Masih family, to go underground for the last two weeks.

CLAAS has come under scrutiny for taking up cases of the forced conversion of kidnapped girls such as the Masih sisters and that of Sonia Younis, 13. On June 24 a Muslim woman in Lahore kidnapped Younis and married her to her son, Mohammead Imran.

When Younis’ parents filed a complaint with a local police station, an investigator returned three days later with a certificate stating Younis had become a Muslim and married Imran. Younis’ parents charged Imran’s parents with kidnapping, but police dismissed it on religious grounds, according to CLAAS.

Kidnappings of non-Muslims are common in Pakistan, where the Christian population is less than 2 percent.

“Generally, because the courts are biased, they give custody to the Muslims,” Maria of CLAAS said. “In many cases the girls are minors. These kinds of cases are similar to others.”  

Report from Compass Direct News


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


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