Well, now that we’re all fired up about Britain’s moral role in the world courtesy of Theresa May, who is indignant about cuts to the overseas aid budget, how about moving on to Pakistan? This week a Pakistani court has ruled that a 12-year-old Christian girl, Farah Shaheen, consented to her marriage with an alleged abductor over twice her age and consented freely to convert to Islam. When the girl was recovered from the household of Khisar Ahmed Ali in December, she was reportedly too traumatised to speak about what happened to her over the five months since she, ah, consented to marry a 29-year-old and convert to Islam. But according to her father, Asif Masi, who gave a statement to Aid to the Church in Need charity, she was kept shackled, forced to work from dawn, usually clearing dung, and raped repeatedly by the man who is said to have abducted her from her home. She was, as I say, 12 years old.
The fate of Mr Ali awaited the police investigation in Faisalabad. The police medical report investigating her age concluded she was 16 or 17, though her birth certificate and her parents contest that she was 12. The Times, which reported the case today, has seen photographs showing deep cuts to her ankles and wrists. An investigating officer, Musaddiq Riaz, told the paper that, ‘Ms Shaheen confessed before a magistrate… that she married… of her own will and wants to live with him’. The case will go to a parliamentary committee. Tahir Mehmood Ashrafi, special representative on religious harmony to the Pakistani Prime Minister, Imran Khan, said government agencies would take up the case.
Oh really? Mr Ashrafi must be one of the busiest bees in the Pakistani administration, given that Pakistan’s Movement for Solidarity and Peace estimates that some 1,000 Christian and Hindu girls and young women, between the ages of 12 and 25, are abducted a year: the normal sequence of events is precisely as is alleged here — forcibly married and forcibly converted to Islam. The police may investigate the matter and the case may be brought to court but the number of actual convictions is another matter. Christian and Hindu girls are fair game for predators, and since Christians in particular are from poorer communities, their chances of redress in court are slim. A Christian girl, aged 14, reportedly abducted at gunpoint last year, is now in hiding… not much of an encouragement to others to trust the police.
And that’s without even taking the blasphemy laws into consideration, which are a means by which Pakistani authorities hold every member of a religious minority in a state of fear. Last September a Lahore court sentenced Asif Pervaiz, a Christian worker in a textile factory, to death on charges of blasphemy. He was accused by his supervisor of sending defamatory comments about Islam’s prophet Muhammad via text message (Mr Asif says that the allegation followed his refusal to convert to Islam). Will the PM, Imran Khan, intervene? Well, just before Christmas Mr Khan sent a sympathetic and supportive message to the funeral of one of the most vigorous advocates of the strict enforcement of blasphemy laws. It seems unlikely, given his record, that he’ll do anything about the blasphemy laws, even if he wanted to.
So, it falls to others to hold Pakistan to account for its treatment of religious minorities. So far one looks in vain for much sign that HM government is doing anything of the sort, though the job of the UK High Commissioner, Dr Christian Turner, can’t be easy. Last year the then Department for International Aid planned to spend £302 million in Pakistan, much of it on education. The UK credit finance agency increased its finance limit for UK businesses looking to invest in Pakistan; the minister responsible for visas and immigration encouraged more students from Pakistan to choose the UK as a place to study; the British High Commission in Pakistan is strongly encouraging Pakistani women to apply for the Chevening scholarships to promote leadership.
How about scrapping all this worthy, well-intentioned work on the basis that whatever good it does, it cannot be right to support a government which has presided over the revolting treatment of Christians, Hindus and other religious minorities, and whose blasphemy laws disgrace a civilised polity? I do realise we find it hard to keep two apparently conflicting ideas in our heads simultaneously, but it is, you know, perfectly possible to be worked up about the terrible situation of Uyghur Muslims in China and about the rights of Christians in Muslim states. And it is arguable that HMG’s chances of exerting influence over Pakistan in respect of its minorities are rather greater than over the second largest economy on earth.
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