By Stefan J. Bos, Special Correspondent Worthy News
(Worthy News) - A top regional court in Pakistan has given custody of a 13-year-old Christian girl to her Muslim abductor, sources involved in the case told Worthy News late Tuesday.
The Sindh High Court in the provincial capital Karachi made the ruling despite her parents' appeals to release Arzoo.
The court reportedly recognized her new Islamic name, Arzoo Fatima. It claimed she married 44-year-old Azhar Ali this month "of her own free will."
However, witnesses said Arzoo came to the courtroom surrounded by dozens of Muslim women and men.
"When she arrived...and tried to run to her mother, her husband, Azhar Ali, held on tightly to her arm," explained Nasir Saeed, who followed the case.
MOTHER KEPT AWAY
Saeed, director of Pakistani advocacy group Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS) UK said her mother was initially kept outside.
"Her mother was also not allowed to meet her daughter. She was only allowed in the courtroom when her solicitor arrived and insisted on taking her into the courtroom," he told Worthy News.
During the court session, the judge apparently failed to check state documents showing her age.
Pakistan's National Database and Registration Authority record reportedly shows Arzoo's age as 13, as she was born on July 31, 2007.
Sexual intercourse with a girl younger than 16 is "statutory rape," carrying a death sentence or minimum of ten years imprisonment in Pakistan.
Arzoo was kidnapped on October 13 from home in Karachi's Railway Colony after her parents went to work, said a police report.
Two days later, police summoned her parents to say that Ali had married their young daughter, according to Christians familiar with the case.
The Muslim, who is already married with children, produced a marriage certificate to Arzoo, stating the girl's age as 18.
Her father Raja said in published regards that "one problem was that two of the abductor's brothers were employees with Sindh police."
Saeed of CLAAS-UK agrees: "It is a very sensitive matter for Pakistani Christians, but sadly it is all falling on deaf ears of the politicians and the authorities."
But Arzoo's husband told authorities that she "willingly" converted to Islam. Her parents have vehemently denied these claims and appealed for her release.
"In the name of God, please rescue our daughter. We are deeply worried. Please help us," said Rita, Arzoo's mother, in a published statement.
She added that the "abductor and his supporters are terrifying us, and we are in danger from these people. Please listen to our appeal."
Following Arzoo's disappearance, her parents said they lost their jobs and claimed to receive threats from one or more kidnappers.
Over the weekend, activists, parliamentarians, and Christians protested outside the Karachi Press Club, demanding the Child Marriage Restraint Act's enforcement. That law makes it illegal to wed someone underage.
Pakistani Christians are also protesting throughout Pakistan and other countries for the safe return of young Arzoo, noted Saeed. "But still there is no hope, especially when the court has given her custody to her abductor."
Saeed noted that the judge appeared unmoved by the protests and arguments.
The court reportedly concluded that "Islam was the universal religion. She had asked her parents to embrace Islam, but they flatly refused.
"Subsequently," the judge ruled that "she accepted Islam before the religious person of Madrassah Jamia Islamia in Karachi," Saeed added.
Rights groups expressed concern that police and judicial authorities are under pressure from Islamic extremists to allow underage marriages.
The Movement for Solidarity and Peace group estimates that up to 1,000 young Christian and Hindu girls aged between 12 and 25 are abducted by Muslim men annually. They are then forced to marry and convert to Islam.
Saeed warned that in recent years the number of forced conversions and forced marriages continue to rise.
"Very often young girls are threatened into giving statements to the court saying they have married and converted to Islam of their own free will," Saeed explained. "But recently we have seen that two girls, Maira Shahbaz and Mahwish, who gave the same statement under duress, escaped their kidnapper and are living in hiding."
Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need is running a petition urging British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to provide Maira Shahbaz asylum.
RECEIVING DEATH THREATS
The 14-year-old Christian girl reportedly received death threats from her former abductor following her recent escape. He allegedly raped her and forced her to marry him and convert to Islam.
Worthy News usually does not publish the names of victims of sexual crimes unless they agree to be named, which appears to be the case.
Saeed urged the Pakistani government to intervene and rescue kidnapped girls, such as Arzoo.
"It is sad as the Pakistani police and courts have failed to respect their laws," said Saeed. He added that authorities violate "international standards" in "forced conversion and forced marriage cases even in the higher courts."
Pakistan is included in the US Commission on International Religious Freedom's blacklist of nations that it says violate religious freedom.