"We are citizens of Pakistan and the law is the same for every citizen of Pakistan; it is the State's responsibility to ensure justice for its citizens,” said Cardinal Joseph Coutts of Pakistan. “The issue of kidnapping, forced conversions and forced marriages should be dealt with on the basis of fundamental human rights, rather than making it a religious issue,” he told a meeting held on November 19 at Saint Patrick's Cathedral in Karachi. The Cardinal, who is Archbishop of Karachi said, “It is the responsibility of the State to provide protection, to ensure justice to every citizen, without distinction of creed, culture, ethnicity and social class."
The diocesan branch of the National Commission of Justice and Peace organized the meeting to discuss the recent case of Arzoo Raja and other Christian minors kidnapped and forced to convert and marry their Muslim captors.
Civil society action
Some 100 people, including Catholic priests, pastors of Protestant churches, Christian lawyers, human rights activists, promoters of minority rights, lay people, and followers of other religions participated in the initiative. All were urged to work together to promote justice and equal rights for all citizens, regardless of religion, culture, ethnicity.
Cardinal Coutts expressed appreciation for the efforts of Christians who are committed to addressing “cases of kidnapping, forced conversion and marriages of underage girls.” “I also appreciate the role of the people of civil society and their support to bring justice to young girls and their families," he said, particularly mentioning Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, president of the Pakistani People's Party, for his intervention in the case of Arzoo Raja.
The 13-year old girl was kidnapped on 13 October while playing outside her home in Karachi and was forcibly converted and married to her 44-year-old Muslim captor, Ali Azar. The Sindh High Court upheld the marriage on 27 October, based on a fake affidavit produced by her purported husband, saying the girl was 18 and had converted of her own free will.
However, under pressure from public opinion, Christian and Muslim, and the intervention of Bhutto-Zardari, the high court reversed its earlier ruling and ordered the police to find Arzoo within 5 days and move her to a shelter home. A medical board on November 9 confirmed her to be a minor of 13 years of age, as attested by official documents by the National Database and Registration Authority. However, Arzoo still remains in a shelter home until the court determines whether she could have converted to Islam on her own, given her age.
Enforcing the law for all
Cardinal Coutts thanked the medical board, the judiciary, political leaders and human rights activists for their efforts in supporting justice in Arzoo’s case. “Laws,” the Cardinal pointed out, “exist which recognize and punish such crimes.” “The culprits must be punished according to the law of the country: kidnapping someone, forcing a person to marry or to change religion is a crime punishable according to the laws in force," he said.
Father Saleh Diego, Director of the Justice and Peace Commission and Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Karachi, reiterated the Cardinal’s views and sentiments and invited all to work together. However, he cautioned them against “spreading unnecessary rumours and fake news about cases of kidnappings, forced conversions and marriages,” warning that they lead to problems in real cases and situations.
The priest thanked all who have raised their voices through the social media in the case of Arzoo and hoped such episodes are not treated as religious issues. “First of all we are Pakistani citizens and secondly we are a religious minority of Pakistan,” he said. “We must support state officials, security forces and the judiciary so that they enforce the law and guarantee the rights of all," he added.