The arrest of a man accused of kidnapping a 13-year-old Catholic girl in Pakistan is being hailed as a potential breakthrough in the struggle to win back her freedom.
Ali Azhaar, 44, is being held in connection with the abduction of Arzoo Raja, from Karachi, whom he claims has converted to Islam and married him of her own volition.
Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) is paying the legal fees of Arzoo’s family and funding their day-to-day living costs.
Mr Azhaar’s arrest comes after Sindh High Court ordered the teenager be separated from him and be placed in a women’s refuge, pending the outcome of the case.
At the hearing, on Monday (2nd November), the court also requested a medical investigation to determine Arzoo’s age.
In response to Mr Azhaar’s claim that the girl is an adult, Arzoo’s family produced an official birth certificate showing she is underage.
Alongside Mr Azhaar, two of his brothers and a friend have also been arrested.
They are accused of aiding and abetting the abduction of Arzoo.
Another judicial hearing is due tomorrow (5th November).
Regina Lynch, projects director of ACN (International), said: “We are very happy about this fortunate and fast development in the case of Arzoo Raja.
“The recent decision represents a success for the constitutional state of Pakistan and for the many people from all religious groups who are willing to end forced marriages.
“We hope and have faith that law and justice will again prevail in the upcoming hearings.
“What is important now is that the traumatised girl receives good care. ACN is helping where it can.”
According to the Movement for Solidarity and Peace, around 1,000 Christian and Hindu women and girls are abducted and forcibly married in Pakistan every year.
Since 2014, there has been a law restricting child marriage in Pakistan, which allows relatives and those affected to take legal action in such incidents.
The Arzoo Raja case had sparked numerous protests from Christians, Muslims and Hindus.
Shireen Mazari, Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Human Rights, has intervened in the case.
As reported by the Pakistan newspaper Dawn, the governor of Sindh Province, Imran Ismail, told a meeting with members of religious minorities: “There can be no compromise on cases involving underage marriage.”