A 14-year-old Pakistani Catholic who was abducted, gang-raped, forcibly converted to Islam and forced to marry her abductor has said she and her family are “constantly” facing death threats.
Maira Shahbaz, who escaped her abductor and is in hiding, addressed supporters of the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) in a pre-recorded video, saying: “I was blackmailed, tortured and badly abused. I was threatened, I was made hostage in a room.”
She added that she and her family “are extremely scared and concerned about our security”.
In the video Maira also made an impassioned prayer for the protection of “all the minor girls in the Christian community” and mentioned the names of three other Christian girls who have been abducted and forcibly married.
The charity is lobbying the UK Government to grant her asylum. However it is understood that her case is complicated by Lahore High Court’s recognition of her marriage as valid.
The video message was part of an online event at which ACN launched a report, Set your Captives Free, which focuses on Christians unjustly imprisoned for their faith. Introducing the report, ACN spokesman John Pontifex said: “Unjust detention emerges as one of the most prevalent, enduring and serious forms of persecution, according to ACN research.”
He added that reports suggested that in the 50 or so countries with the worst religious freedom records, “more than 300 Christians are unjustly detained every month”.
In addition to the case of Maira, the report highlights that of Leah Sharibu, the Nigerian teenager abducted by Boko Haram in 2018, of Chinese Bishop James Su Zhimin, arrested most recently in 1996, and of the Eritrean Orthodox Patriarch Abune Antonios, who has been under house arrest since 2006.
Other speakers at the event included Nigerian Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Abuja, the Pakistani-born Anglican Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, and the Catholic former Labour MP Rob Flello, who was briefly selected to stand for the Liberal Democrats.
Archbishop Kaigama, whose priest Fr Dajo Matthew was kidnapped by armed men on 22 November, warned that: “The Christian-dominated Middle Belt and some parts of northern Nigeria will have no future if groups like Boko Haram and allied terrorist groups continue to harass them.”
Mr Flello, who was deselected by the Liberal Democrats for his views on gay marriage and abortion, said that while persecution abroad could take different forms from what Christians face in Britain, “every act of discrimination against Christians in this country moves us ever further down the path that makes it harder for us to defend Christians
“Given that Labour and the Liberal Democrats have both published manifestos directly in contradiction to the Catholic Church’s teaching, it seems unlikely that many public professing Christians are ever likely to get selected to stand for seats from those parties,” he added.
Citing magistrates, midwives and marriage registrars, he said: “Christians are already under great threat in every area of the public square.”
Regarding the closure of churches during the pandemic, he accused the Government of treating places of worship “treating them no differently from the local swimming baths or some other lifestyle choice” … “despite there being no evidence that they have led to any infections”.
Rehman Chishti MP, the government’s former faith envoy, who chaired the event, said that the Foreign Office received more correspondence about religious freedom concerns than about any other issue except for the Middle East peace process.
In the report Mr Pontifex wrote that the Covid-19 pandemic has worsened conditions for some persecuted Christians because it had led to the temporary closure of courts, and the moving of church services online was exploited by officials in China to monitor attendees.
The report includes a foreword by Asia Bibi, the Pakistani woman granted asylum in 2018 after spending years on death row for blasphemy, who said that teenage girls such as Maira are “easy targets: their Christian faith makes them nobodies in society” but added that “even the most senior fall victim to acts of unjust detention”.