The day after Palm Sunday, on the outskirts of the city of Sialkot in Pakistan, 7-year-old Sara Masih, the daughter of a poor Christian family, headed to a corner store a few blocks from her home to buy some chips and chocolate. Sara is the darling of her church’s children’s ministry, according to a family friend, “just a little angel.”
On her way out, a young man stopped her and at first offered her gifts to come with him, but then grabbed her and hustled her to an abandoned apartment building nearby. Three other men went in with him.
A neighbor, a Muslim woman, noticed the group entering the building and again as they left a few hours later—without Sara. She went over and found the child in an empty room, unresponsive, bloody, and with a broken leg. She found Sara’s parents, who took the girl to a hospital. She bled for days, and doctors confirmed that she had been repeatedly raped.
Her father, Iqbal Maish, and mother, Shogufa, didn’t know what to do. They were terrified of retribution if they reported the incident, but a few days later they allowed their minister, known as Pastor Peter, to ask local authorities to investigate.
What happened next is astonishing: Local authorities did investigate, very aggressively, Peter told WORLD through his son, Daniel. In fact, Sialkot police caught one of the men, Momammad Fakhar Alam, and then beat him until he gave up the names of his accomplices, Daniel said. All were from wealthy families. Within a month, police had all four men in custody and a trial followed on May 26.
In the days leading up to the trial, different people threatened Iqbal on several occasions. Daniel and Peter attended the trial with the Masih family and on the way into the courtroom, family members of the accused offered Iqbal the equivalent of $40,000 to drop the charges, Daniel said.
“I don’t want your money,” he told them. “We want justice.” Later that day, the court sentenced each of the men to 20 years in prison.
Daniel said that even some Muslim community leaders denounced the crime at a public rally before the trial: “Many people stand with us and say this is wrong.”
To get a conviction in such a case is “a miracle,” according to Lisa Jones, executive director of Christian Freedom International, an organization that tracks the persecution of Christians worldwide. The community must have supported the prosecution, she said, because in Pakistan police “lean whichever way the wind is blowing.”
Jones pointed out that Sharia law excuses all kinds of brutality against women and girls because it accepts polygamy and forced conversion. In predominantly Muslim countries, “it’s extremely common for very young girls to be married off to adult males, and unaccompanied girls are a target,” she said.
Usually, a man who forcibly takes a girl as a “wife” won’t abandon her immediately, but under Sharia law she may be “discarded” if she “dishonors” her new husband, Jones said. In practice, that means anything he doesn’t like. Those who try to protect victims are often bullied and even assassinated.
But in this case, even though Sara is from a Christian family, the involvement of multiple men, her brutal treatment and abandonment, and her low status as the daughter of a very poor family may have aroused some community sympathy, Jones said. Iqbal formerly worked in a brickyard and “those people are slaves,” Jones said.
“Now, whether [the rapists] ever serve the sentence is another question,” Jones added. She suspects their families will take the $40,000 offered as a bribe to Sara’s family and try to buy the men out of jail.
This is not a clear case of religious persecution. Jones suggested the rapists could well have known Sara’s background or recognized her as the daughter of a brickyard worker, many of whom are Christians. That would have made her more vulnerable. But Pastor Peter noted that unaccompanied girls of any religion can be snatched off the streets. As for the atmosphere toward believers in his region, he said churches face many problems but at least “we have the freedom to do this work.”
Sara and her family are now in hiding, afraid the families of the attackers will seek revenge. Her mother has suffered some minor heart attacks because of the stress. Iqbal has a new job and Sara is slowly recovering her ability to walk.