by Arielle Del Turco
July 8, 2021
A Pakistani court has sent 13-year-old Nayab Gill back into the custody of a Muslim man who her parents claim kidnapped her. Ignoring documents that prove Nayab was underage, the court’s decision broke the hearts of the Roman Catholic parents. Her distraught father, Shahid Gill, say “My child then left the courtroom in front of our eyes, and we could do nothing.”
On May 20, Nayab went missing. An alleged Islamic marriage certificate was produced to the court baring the same date. Several problems are apparent in how the case was handled, and the decision to allow a minor to marry goes against Pakistani law. Unfortunately, instances of kidnapping of Christian girls, forced conversion to Islam, and forced marriage is not as uncommon as it should be in Pakistan.
The Continued Persecution of Pakistani Christians
Nayab is a Christian in a country where Christians make up a small minority—just 1.27 percent of the population. They are a marginalized group. Many are illiterate and undereducated. These social factors make the Christian community particularly vulnerable to exploitation.
The forced conversion and forced marriage of Christian girls by Muslim men is an unfortunately common problem. Many estimates suggest that around 1,000 Christian and Hindu girls and young women are kidnapped, forcibly converted to Islam, and forced to marry their abductors each year.
While many Pakistanis are disgusted by this practice—just like many were grieved by the reports about Sunita Masih—Islamist mobs and a failure by Pakistan’s government to secure the rule of law enable this problem to continue. When extremist mobs form outside courthouses and threaten judges who might rule in favor of a Christian or Hindu victim, judges often relent and send the victims back to live with their abductors. This capitulation does an immense disservice to Pakistani minorities who seek justice.
When an investigation or court case involves a religious minority victim and a Muslim perpetrator, Pakistani radicals often view the cases as a challenge to Islam, rather than a question of criminality. Due to this dynamic, perpetrators may target Christians or Hindus as victims to hide their crimes behind religious tensions.
Attacks on Pakistani Christians are brutal. In April, seven houses belonging to Christian families were set on fire by Muslim extremists trying to take their land, according to International Christian Concern. In May, reports surfaced that a mob of over 200 Muslim men had attacked a Christian community in a small village, harming Christians and destroying property. The incident was reportedly sparked by a disagreement between teenage Christian workers and a Muslim man.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most recent report from the Pakistani government indicates that the Christian population has declined over the last two decades. Christian leaders say that intense discrimination has sent Pakistani Christians to seek better lives in other countries across Asia.
Economic Pressure Provides a Ray of Hope for the Persecuted
Promoting religious freedom in Pakistan is extraordinarily challenging. Yet, a major recent victory indicates that international pressure can make all the difference for religious minorities.
In June, the Lahore High Court acquitted Shagufta Kausar and Shafqat Emmanuel, who had been on death row since 2014 for supposedly sending a blasphemous text message. The couple is illiterate and claim the text came from a SIM card registered by someone using a copy of Shagufta’s national identity card. Imprisoned since 2013, the couple were separated from their four children and lived in fear of attacks from fellow prisoners.
After years of delays, the court’s decision to acquit the couple finally came just weeks after the European Parliament highlighted their case in a recent resolution against Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. But the resolution did not just condemn blasphemy laws. It also called for a review of Pakistan’s eligibility for GSP+ status in light of current events. This is a tariff preference that benefits developing countries, and losing it would have a significant economic impact.
Maybe it is a coincidence that this couple was acquitted following the European Parliament’s resolution calling for their release, but after appealing the decision for years, the timing is hard to ignore. And the threat of economic pressure has proven to be effective at moving governments to change tack on their human rights violations in the past.
Most notably, American Pastor Andrew Brunson was freed from his imprisonment in Turkey after the U.S. Treasury Department issued Global Magnitsky sanctions on Turkish leaders. These successes should encourage Western countries to utilize the economic leverage they have to uphold internationally recognized human rights standards.
Pakistan is a young democracy, and to secure a peaceful and prosperous future, it is essential that the government work to eliminate religious persecution and discrimination. The international community must also do its part to hold Pakistan to a higher standard of human rights.
We live in a time where hatred directed at religious believers is flaring across the globe, often with violent consequences. International religious freedom is not a feel-good issue that can be relegated to the sidelines of foreign policy. The promotion of religious freedom across the globe is critical to peace, security, rule of law, and development. For the sake of innocent victims like Nayab, American leaders must take it seriously.