When a young Christian girl from Pakistan called Farah Shaheen was abducted from her home, not in their worst nightmares could her family imagine what she would then go through. Six months later, Farah was found in her abductor’s home. Her ankles were shackled. They were bleeding. Some time later, I was able to speak to Farah myself. She said: “They put chains on my ankles and tied me to a rope. I prayed every night: ‘God help me.’”
Farah’s family had been told she was married to her abductor and had now been converted to Islam. All of this inflicted on a girl of just 12 years of age.
Events would take a turn for the better for Farah. Three months after police rescued her, a court in Faisalabad ruled that her marriage had not been registered with the appropriate authorities and consequently her so-called husband had to let her go.
Farah is back with her family but, as Christmas approaches, it is worth sparing a thought for the many other girls and women whose Christian faith has made them easy targets for abduction, forced conversion, forced marriage and sexual enslavement.
To mark #RedWednesday on 24 November, the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) launched a report in the Houses of Parliament called “Hear Her Cries: The kidnapping, forced conversion and sexual victimisation of Christian women and girls”.
Drawing on first-hand reports, live case studies and other on-the-ground research, the report found that, while the extent of forced conversion and sexual coercion is unknown, research strongly points towards an epidemic of cases in countries including Nigeria, Egypt and Pakistan. Hear Her Cries concludes that forced conversion and sexual coercion of Christian girls and women should rank as a human rights catastrophe.
In Pakistan, research shows that Christians make up 70 per cent of women and girls forcibly converted and married. In Nigeria, Christians comprise an estimated 95 per cent of women and girls held by Islamist extremists.
At its most extreme, the forced conversion of Christian women and girls can be classified as genocide. Jihadists have targeted them intending to destroy minority faith communities. Forcing a woman to abandon her Christian faith not only wins a convert to the predator’s religion, it also ensures that any children born, including through forced marriage, are claimed for that new faith too.
The Hear Her Cries report highlights the suffering of Christian women and girls who suffered forced conversion and forced marriage at the hands of Islamist militants Daesh (ISIS§) after they over-ran parts of the Nineveh Plains in northern Iraq. What happened to Yazidi women under Daesh is perhaps better known than the plight of Christians. Hear Her Cries tells the story of Christian woman Rita Habib. Living in Qaraqosh, Rita was abducted by Daesh and forced into sexual slavery.
She said: “I was bought and sold four times. They did evil things to us. They beat us and raped us.” Eventually she was rescued by people posing as jihadists in a slave auction.
Victims and their families are frequently too scared to come forward to report incidents. Social shame weighs heavily on them. There is also the threat of retribution from abductors and their families.
But almost every day, ACN receives reports of Christians – mostly underage girls – abducted, forcibly married and suffering sexual violence. Hence, besides releasing the Hear Her Cries report, the charity has launched a petition calling for action to stop these atrocities.
ACN’s core campaign for #RedWednesday, the petition was devised mindful that the following day – 25 November – is the UN International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.
The petition states: “We call on the UK government and the United Nations to take more effective steps to address the double jeopardy faced by women and girls from religious minorities in countries where they suffer violence and persecution.”
So what can the UK and the UN be expected to do? They can work bilaterally or in forums such as the UN to lobby the governments where forced conversion and sexual coercion are especially widespread, calling for change. Action points include:
Improve reporting: Steps should be taken to improve the official recording of incidents, making it easier for victims to come forward.
Raise awareness: Recognising that many victims are very poor and with little education, action is needed to raise people’s awareness of their rights and the laws that protect them.
Review laws: Especially in countries of core concern, reviews are urgently required to ensure the legislative framework is sufficient to ensure justice for victims.
Enforce the law: Amid concerns of institutional complicity in failing to bring perpetrators to justice, a root and branch assessment of security services is necessary to ensure due process is followed from the moment allegations are first reported.
Many of these areas of concern are borne out in the shameful tragedy that has befallen Maira Shahbaz, a Christian girl from a poverty-stricken family in Pakistan, whose case ACN has followed practically since the fateful day when she fell victim to predators. In April 2020, 14-year-old Maira was reportedly abducted by three men wielding guns and bundled into a car.
Then began the struggle to win Maira back.
On 4 August 2020, Lahore High Court ruled that Maira was in effect rightfully married to her abductor and should return to him. This judgement came in spite of Maira having a birth certificate to show she was 14 at the time. This judgement came in spite of laws forbidding marriage to those under 16. This judgement came in spite of evidence to show the marriage certificate produced by Maira abductor was false, with the imam whose signature appears on the document claiming it was forged. And this judgement came in spite of evidence to show Maira was under extreme pressure to conform to her abductor’s demands.
Less than two weeks later, Maira escaped and made a statement to police saying that she had been blackmailed, gang-raped and forced to sign documents amid threats against her life and that of her family.
In October 2020, ACN began lobbying the UK government to grant asylum to Maira Shahbaz and her family. By then she was facing death threats from her former abductor and his associates who accused her of apostasy. More than 12,000 people signed an ACN petition calling on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to grant Maira UK asylum.
More than a year later, and after two meetings with Home Secretary Priti Patel, the struggle for Maira continues. She and her family live confined to one room in a secret location. I am in daily contact with Maira. Once she wrote: “We are very worried. We feel we are in prison here. We believe in you and God that you will get us out of here as soon as possible. We have no one but God in this world.”
Maira’s plight is uniquely serious but thousands of other Christian girls and young women continue to suffer what she has gone through. Maira provided the Foreword for ACN’s Hear Her Cries report on forced conversion and sexual violence. Her words are a rallying cry for ACN’s petition demanding government action in defence of young Christian women and girls who suffer. She writes: “Please listen to the Christian girls and women who are kidnapped and who are forced to change their religion and get married. For too long, the world has remained
To sign the ACN #RedWednesday petition calling on the UK government and the UN to take action for Christian and other minority faith girls and women suffering forced conversion and sexual violence, please visit
acnuk.org/petition. Go here too to order a free copy of ACN’s #RedWednesday report “Hear Her Cries: The kidnapping, forced conversion and sexual victimisation of Christian women and girls”.
John Pontifex is head of press and information at Aid to the Church in Need UK
This article is from the December 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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