In late 2020, yet another harrowing case of abduction and forced religious conversion came out of Pakistan and drew international attention and outcry. This time, 14-year-old Roman Catholic girl Maira Shahbaz, was abducted in broad daylight in April of 2020, being forced at gunpoint into an unknown car. Shahbaz reveals how her kidnapper, Mohamed Nakash, used his gun and numerous threats of violence – on both herself and her family- to force her into signing documentation that she willingly married Nakash and converted to Islam according to her own will. For the next few months, Shahbaz would be filmed being repeatedly raped and sexually abused.
Shahbaz, in an amazing act of bravery, successfully escaped and returned to her family, all of whom went into hiding as a means to prevent such a horrific experience from recurring. They saw hope in the prospects that, at their upcoming July 2020 court hearing, Nakash could be convicted of his crimes and Shahbaz would be able to return to her peaceful and normal life before the tragedy. However, all hopes were dashed when, after the initial decision to place Shahbaz in a safety shelter for women and girls, the Lahore High Court in August 2020 overturned the lower court decision and ordered Shahbaz to be returned to her captor. Despite Shahbaz’s numerous pleas for security and explanations of the kidnapping, abuse, and torture she suffered, and despite the documentation provided by Shahbaz’s family proving that she was just 14 years old at the time of the incident – contrary to Nakash’s claims that Shahbaz was 19 years old – the court found that Shahbaz had willfully converted to Islam and married Nakash. Both the religious conversion and marriage of the underaged and suffering 14-year-old Maira Shahbaz were deemed lawful by the Lahore High Court, and she was forced to return to the man and the torture she had taken such desperate measures to escape.
With the help and support of her family, Shahbaz was able to escape Nakash again, and she now remains in hiding in Pakistan. Since her second escape, Nakash has accused Maira of apostasy (denouncing Islam) despite the fact that he had forced her to convert from Catholicism to Islam against her will in the first place. Shahbaz’s family, in return, counter-sued Nakash for rape of a minor, and they are in constant fear after receiving death threats regarding the case. Shahbaz’s lawyer, Sumera Shafique, has filed a legal petition to nullify the unlawful marriage and religious conversion.
Now, the international community has taken some steps of their own to advocate for Maira Shahbaz. Catholic aid organization Aid to the Church in Need has launched a global petition imploring UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to grant Shahbaz asylum on the grounds that she will never be able to live a safe and peaceful life should she remain in Pakistan:
“Maira’s life is in constant danger because she is condemned as an apostate by her abductor and his supporters. Unless Maira and her family can leave Pakistan they will always be at risk of being killed.” – Sumera Shafique, Maira’s lawyer
“This is a particularly harrowing example of the all too common phenomenon of forced marriage and forced conversion of women and girls from religious minorities in Pakistan. Unless Maira can escape Pakistan, she will be condemned as an apostate by her abductor and his supporters – and will be at risk of being killed. We understand Maira Shahbaz and her family are seeking asylum in the UK. We hope the UK government will do everything possible to facilitate that, or to assist in guaranteeing her safety elsewhere.” – Stephen Evans, Chief Executive, National Secular Society
In other related news, Aid to the Church in Need on 17 February announced that another Pakistani Christian girl, 12-year-old Farah Shaheen, has returned to her family following the decision of the Faisalabad District and Sessions Court that her forced marriage to 45-year-old Khizar Ahmed Ali was illegitimate and illegal. In December 2020, Farah was found in the Ali’s home with deep wounds on her ankles and hands; she later reported that Ali had kidnapped her, chained and shackled her, and forced her to convert to Islam and marry him against her will. Now, Shaheen is delighted to be back with her family and reveals that her wounds are healing nicely.