Attorney, relative of Christian parents fear they are likely to lose custody of daughters.
ISTANBUL, August 12 (Compass Direct News) – Amid pressure from radical Muslim clerics, a medical board is expected to determine the age of a Christian Pakistani girl allegedly forced to convert to Islam. The medical report on 13-year-old Saba Masih, who married a Muslim man, is due by her Aug. 20 custody hearing.
The custody battle over her and her 10-year-old sister, Aneela Masih – two girls raised as Christians who were kidnapped and allegedly converted to Islam – may be decided on their testimonies even though they contradict court evidence. Saba Masih, married off to the Muslim man after the kidnapping, has twice claimed in court that she is 17 years old – Pakistani law requires females to be at least 16 to marry without permission of legal guardians.
At a hearing last Wednesday (Aug. 6), the Lahore High Court’s Multan branch ruled that the district medical board of Multan will examine Saba Masih to determine if she is old enough to marry of her own volition. Aneela Masih claims to have embraced Islam, though as a minor she cannot legally do so.
The court has refused to accept the girls’ birth certificates or baptism records as evidence for their ages. Under Pakistani law a minor cannot marry regardless of his or her religion.
The two sisters were kidnapped on June 26 while traveling to visit their uncle in Sarwar Shaheed, northwest of Multan. Saba Masih was married to Amjad Ali, a Muslim, the next day, and the kidnappers filed for custody of the girls on June 28 based on their conversion.
In a July 12 ruling, District and Sessions Court Judge Main Naeem Sardar awarded custody of the girls to the kidnappers based on Saba Masih’s testimony that she was 17 and had converted to Islam. He did not accept the girls’ birth certificates as evidence of their ages.
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.
At that hearing, however, both girls claimed to have embraced Islam, and Saba Masih claimed once again to be 17 and thus able to marry. Judge Saeed Ejaz ordered that she be sent to a medical examination to determine her real age.
Muslim clerics are already threatening the medical board, claiming that since the girls have embraced Islam they should not be returned to the custody of their Christian parents, said Khalid Raheel, the kidnapped girls’ uncle.
“Muslim clerics are threatening the judge. [Saba] said she was 17 because she was threatened,” he said. “[The judge] told the medical officer to get her age checked by the medical board … [but] Muslim clerics are threatening the medical board.”
The medical board will submit its report at the next hearing on Aug. 20.
Rashid Rehman, a lawyer representing the Christian parents, said that if the report says Saba Masih has reached puberty or is between the ages of 16 and 17, then the court will likely award her Muslim husband custody over her – even though her marriage is invalid since she is a minor.
“The law has been amended, and no minor can be contracted into marriage with [guardian or parental] permission or without permission,” he said. “But because of religious pressure, the court can decide otherwise.”
The court cannot grant custody of Aneela Masih to the kidnappers since both sides agree she is 10. Because she reiterated at the August 6 hearing that she had converted to Islam, however, it is not clear if she will be returned to her Christian parents.
According to a strict interpretation of Islamic law, a non-Muslim cannot have custody of a Muslim child.
“I think Aneela will not be given to the parents but sent to a shelter or child protection care bureau,” said Rehman, a member of the Human Rights Commission in Pakistan. “She can’t reside with the parents, who are Christians.”
After the hearing, the sisters were returned to the government-run Dar-Ul-Aman women’s shelter, where they have stayed since July 29. They have been forbidden from seeing their parents or the Muslim kidnappers.
The kidnappers, however, continue to intimidate the girls, said Raheel, their uncle.
“Even in the women’s shelter run by the government, they keep on calling them on the phone,” he said. “They keep on threatening them there also. That’s why they can’t change their minds.”
He said the kidnappers are threatening the girls’ parents to stop trying to regain custody of their daughters.
“They told them not to go to court, or they would kill them,” Raheel said.
Attorney Rehman said the courthouse at the Aug. 20 hearing could be a charged environment, since the local press has published stories advocating the kidnappers’ claims.
Raheel noted that the local Urdu papers, Jang and Xpress, quoted the kidnappers as saying the Christian family was threatening them for the return of their daughters even though they had freely chosen to become Muslims.
A priest at the Masih family’s parish known only as Father Asab said many Muslims have expressed their sympathy to the Christian family but are afraid of speaking out against the perpetrators.
“Many Muslims are also with us, those who understand,” he said. “But the majority is afraid to tell the truth. In this case many people in our area, many Muslims, know that those who kidnapped the girls … have a bad name in society. But even Muslim families are frightened to tell the truth.”
Report from Compass Direct News