THE Home Secretary, Priti Patel, has met campaigners who are urgently trying to secure asylum for a Pakistani Christian girl who is in hiding, in fear for her life.
Maira Shahbaz, aged 15, and her family, have been living in one room for almost a year, since she was abducted at gunpoint and forced to convert to Islam and marry one of the three men who carried out the kidnapping.
She escaped the man’s house after the Lahore High Court overruled an earlier decision by the Faisalabad Sessions and District Court to place her in a women’s shelter, which forced her to return to him. The religious-freedom charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) says that extremists have gone from door to door looking for her, as they now consider her an apostate who deserves to be killed.
Mrs Patel met ACN representatives, the Prime Minister’s special envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief, Fiona Bruce MP, and the Roman Catholic MP Sir Edward Leigh, on Tuesday of last week, to discuss Miss Shahbaz’s situation.
When she agreed to the meeting last month, Mrs Patel said: “I have been working with colleagues in the House on this case for a considerable period of time. . . We are proactively looking at all the help we can provide.”
ACN would not comment on what was said at the meeting on 13 July, but the charity’s head of press, John Pontifex, said: “The Home Secretary’s personal level of engagement with us on this issue is a real sign of commitment to help those who are persecuted. However, we know that a meeting isn’t indicative of success: it’s simply an indication that we’re being heard, and that in itself is a really great thing.”
A petition calling for the UK to grant Miss Shahbaz asylum, organised by ACN in the autumn, garnered 12,500 signatures, and an open letter from the charity’s director, Neville Kyrke-Smith, was signed by 30 parliamentarians, bishops, and leaders of human-rights charities.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Forcing women and girls into marriage is a serious abuse of human rights which robs them of the right to choose their own future. The UK leads the way in tackling this practice around the world, including Pakistan where we have raised concerns, particularly given reports of this happening to women and girls from religious minorities.
“The Home Secretary recently met with Sir Edward Leigh, Fiona Bruce, and the Aid to the Church in Need to discuss this case and has made clear we are looking at all the help we can provide.”
The campaigners’ meeting with Mrs Patel contrasts the treatment received by relatives of the Pakistani Christian Asia Bibi, with whose case Miss Shahbaz’s has parallels. Asia Bibi’s husband and daughter came to London in 2018, and had been due to meet with a government minister, but, after they had been through security at his offices, they were told that the meeting had been cancelled (News, 29 November 2018).
The meeting comes after the Government has repeatedly pledged to implement all the recommendations of the 2019 Independent Review of FCO support for persecuted Christians, which was carried out by the Bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen (News, 10 July 2020). Recommendation 5 calls for policies to address kidnappings, forced marriage, and other rights violations targeting members of religious minorities.
In 2018, Mrs Bibi was acquitted after eight years on death row for blasphemy, but was quickly forced into hiding after mobs began conducting house-to-house searches for her (News, 2 November 2018). She was eventually permitted to leave the country, and now lives in Canada.