Forced conversion and marriage of girls from minority religions is a growing problem in Pakistan, campaigners say
By Zofeen T. Ebrahim
KARACHI, Pakistan, Nov 3 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Pakistani police have rescued a missing Christian teenager who was allegedly forced to convert to Islam and marry a 44-year-old Muslim man, her family said on Tuesday after the case sparked street protests and outrage on social media.
A court in the city of Karachi ordered police to free the 13-year-old and arrest the man three weeks after she disappeared following appeals by women's rights and Christian organisations for authorities to act.
Police took the girl to a women's shelter in Karachi where she will stay until a court hearing on Thursday, said Jibran Nasir, her parent's lawyer. The man, a neighbour of the family, was due to appear in court on Wednesday.
Nasir said he hoped the girl's school and government records would be enough evidence to prove her age and "for the court to determine that she was a minor".
Sindh's High Court initially accepted statements from the girl that she was 18 - the legal marriage age in the province, and had willingly converted to Islam and wed, sparking protests in Karachi by Christian groups and rights campaigners.
"My husband went to the police and reported her missing... but they did nothing," the girl's mother Rita Raja said at Karachi's Holy Trinity Cathedral, where the family has been seeking refuge since her Oct. 13 disappearance.
"Two days later the police put a marriage certificate in my husband's hand stating she had married," Raja told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at the cathedral, the seat of the Church of Pakistan.
Last week, a video of Raja crying and pleading to see her daughter outside the arrested man's house went viral on social media.
Campaigners say forced conversion and marriage of girls and woman from minority religions, including Hindus and Christians, is a growing problem in Muslim-majority Pakistan, with those from poor families and low castes largely targeted.
Last year, the alleged abduction and forced conversion of two Hindu sisters made headlines in Pakistan when a video of their marriages was shared widely on social media.
According to campaign group Girls Not Brides, 21% of girls in Pakistan are married before their 18th birthday. It has the sixth-highest number of child brides in the world at nearly two million, United Nations children's agency UNICEF data shows.
(Reporting by Zofeen T. Ebrahim, Additional reporting and writing by Annie Banerji @anniebanerji; Editing by Helen Popper; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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