A court in Pakistan has sent a Catholic girl to a shelter home after she reportedly converted to Islam and married a much older Muslim man.
Media reports said the girl, named only as Arzoo, 13, from Karachi’s Railway Colony, went missing on Oct. 13 but was later found to have married a 45-year-old Muslim man.
The Sindh High Court, where a case was lodged by the girl’s father, ordered the police to charge the Muslim man for violating the Sindh Child Marriages Restraint Act of 2013.
Arzoo, however, said before the court that she was not kidnapped and had willingly married Azhar after converting to Islam.
Arzoo’s parents say she was seduced by the much older man who is their neighbor.
The court, which noted that the girl is underage and could not contract a marriage on her own, sent her to a shelter home.
In Sindh province the legal marriage age is 18.
The court also ordered several arrests over the case including the cleric who conducted the wedding ceremony.
Court-appointed doctors said the girl was about 14.
“This being the case… it was not possible for her to enter into a legally valid marriage,” the judges said in an order seen by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Azhar was arrested last week.
The alleged abduction, forced conversion and subsequent marriage, sparked an outcry from human rights groups and Catholic Church leaders in Pakistan, especially when the court earlier accepted statements from Arzoo that she was of legal age and had also converted to Islam and married Azhar on her free will.
Archbishop Joseph Arshad, president of the Pakistan Catholic Bishops’ Conference, has earlier said that it is the responsibility of the state “to protect its citizens, especially minor girls.”
Father Saleh Diego, vicar general of the Archdiocese of Karachi, told Catholic News Agency that “a 13-year-old cannot decide about her religion. She is an innocent girl… [she] still has a lot to learn about her own religion.”
In late October, the family’s lawyer Jibran Nasir said the girl’s parents had filed a harassment petition on her behalf.
The Sindh High Court initially dismissed the petition, but later reversed it following protests.
A recent United Nations report noted that child marriages are still commonplace across South Asia. In Pakistan, nearly 25 percent of women in their early 20s were married by the time they are 18, the report found.