The Holy cross passes the congregation during Christmas mass at Central Brooks Memorial Church in Karachi. Photo:  Reuters/Akhtar Soomro
A Christmas mass is held at Central Brooks Memorial Church in Karachi. Christians and members of other minority religions can face discrimination in Pakistan. Photo: Reuters / Akhtar Soomro

When it comes to the sentiments of minority religious communities in Pakistan, the majority does not care about them. Most of the population is devoid of thinking beyond a certain spectrum and only believes in the supremacy of the dominant religion.

For Ahmadis, Christians and Hindus it is all about surviving and living as second- or third-rate citizens. You can find placards outside some shops saying, “Dogs and Ahmadis are not allowed here.” For many Christians, the only jobs they can find are as sanitary workers.

In a society where even educated people judge others on the basis of religious beliefs rather than rational standards, it is not difficult to kidnap Christian or Hindu girls and marrying them by forcing them to change their religions. No one is bothered about that, because these minorities do not matter, as second-rate citizens are not entitled to basic human rights.

Recently a 13-year-old Christian girl, Arzoo Raja, was kidnapped by a 44-year-old man. When her parents filed a complaint with police, they were shocked to learn that the abductor had married the girl and told police that she had accepted Islam and was now a Muslim.

Also, fake documents regarding Arzoo’s age were presented by the abductor, and astonishingly, despite the girls’ parents presenting her birth certificate and her school records proving that Arzoo is a minor, these documents were not accepted by the authorities.

Ali Azhar, the abductor, allegedly had links with the Sindh police, so the case was sent to court. Much to the family’s surprise, not only did the Sindh High Court validate the marriage but it also declared that Arzoo is a Muslim now and that the police should give her protection.

A heart-wrenching video of Arzoo’s mother crying outside the court and pleading to police and authorities just to let her meet with her daughter once was almost unbearable to watch. However, her plight was ignored, as she does not belong to the religion the majority follows in the country. Since Arzoo gave a statement that she had changed her religion without pressure, the court found it more than enough to justify the forced marriage.

Under Pakistani law, a 13-year-old girl is not an adult, but the use of religion to authorize sexual relations with the children of minorities has given this kind of inhuman act acceptability in society.

Arzoo is the not the first child who has been forcibly married and converted to Islam. According to a study by the Movement for Solidarity and Peace Pakistan, around 1,000 Christian and Hindu women are abducted, forcibly married and forcibly converted to Islam every year in the country.

In most of these incidents, the victim is an underage girl. However, it is very hard to discuss this issue in mainstream media, as the far-right intellectuals and journalists occupying the media make it difficult to initiate a debate on these inhuman incidents.

In Pakistan, any rational question on the collective hypocrisy of the society pertaining to faith can either land you in jail for blasphemy or get you killed by an extremist or a mob. Meanwhile those who commit the crime of abducting these young girls in the name of religion are respected by the larger segment of society.

No one dares to question how it is possible that only Hindu or Christian girls are willing to change their religion and why there is not a single incidence of a Muslim girl or woman converting to Hinduism or Christianity.

Many in Pakistan know the answer, as for the larger segment of society girls are considered symbols of honor and their desire to marry or even to like someone is considered a sin. However, the same majority segment of society has no objection if a Hindu or Christian minor girl does the same. In fact, the far-right intellectuals journalists and mullahs praise them for this act.

Imagine a country where the majority of the population even differentiates a crime on the basis of faith. If a minor girl from the Muslim community is subject to sexual harassment, the perpetrator is called a pedophile, and the majority demands public hanging of the culprit, whereas in the case of Christian and Hindu girls the abductor is considered pious and the faith merchants bring up religion to save the culprit.

Arzoo, a sixth-grade pupil, deserved much better than to be married to a man who is even older than her father. Life for both Arzoo and her family will never be the same again even if they eventually are given justice. However, so far everyone from Prime Minister Imran Khan to Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah is silent on this matter.

Sindh province in fact has a law against child marriage, the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act 2013. Yet the mainstream parties and politicians who often use Twitter for the political purposes are silent on the issue. The reason for the silence is obvious, as no one wants to go against the popular belief system.

So for Arzoo’s family, the fight ahead is tough, as not only will they be pitted against a ruthless system that favors the abductor of their daughter but they will not have any political support unless foreign human-rights organizations put pressure on Pakistan.

But if Arzoo’s mother decides to protest or is given support from an international organization, she will be putting her own life and those of her other two children at risk, as the abductor with the help of the faith merchants will accuse the family of being supported by the West in order to hatch a conspiracy against their religion.

Even if Arzoo is lucky and somehow is returned to her family, hundreds of other daughters of Christian and Hindu families will remain at risk of being abducted at any time and anywhere.

There is a need to open up society and to initiate a debate on how humans and humanity come first. After all, one needs to be a human first in order to have a particular religious faith, and if one cannot respect other humans one can never serve one’s religion or society.

Arzoo is a test case not only for Pakistani society but also for the state, which has never shown any seriousness about bringing about change in the rotten social fabric of a society that encourages the mindset of using religion to target the vulnerable just for the sake of fulfilling men’s sexual desires.

Life is not all about sex or converting vulnerable minor girls of other communities to the religion of the majority. Moreover, the state needs to decide whether we need children like Arzoo to feel safe here or we need abductors like Ali Azhar roaming freely and using religion to fulfill their sexual desires and satisfy their lust.

For now, all eyes will be on state and the Supreme Court of Pakistan on whether they will be able to provide justice to the family of Arzoo or will allow the exploitation of the children of the country’s religious minorities.

Imad Zafar is a journalist and columnist/commentator for newspapers. He is associated with TV channels, radio, newspapers, news agencies, and political, policy and media related think-tanks.