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Airport officials allow Pakistani Christian rape victim to enter in Sri Lanka

London: January 7, 2018. (PCP) A 26 years old unmarried Christian woman from the city of Faisalabad, Pakistan narrowly escaped being deported back to Pakistan, after it became very clear to airport officials that she was in no fit state to return home and was exhibiting tangible signs of trauma.

Sidra Masih matriculated from her school in 2010 and has gained eight years experience in her field as a beautician. For the past two years she was working at a ladies salon Face Logic Ladies Saloon in Faisalabad, where she became a favourite of many of the female clientele.

The owner of the salon Zahida Butt was dropped off daily at her salon by her brother Fareed and he became enamoured with Sidra who is a very attractive young woman. Unable to control his urges he would enter Zahida's business premises and would intentionally touch her but would make out it was an accident, his unsubtle, abrasive nature perturbed Sidra but she continued working as the pay was good and she liked her boss Zahida.

After some time however, Fareed began a more pernicious campaign of harassment and began to offer her a ride home, attempting to engage with her as he followed along beside her shouting from a car window. Sidra was neither attracted to Fareed or his wealth, nor did she give him any opportunity to think that there was any potential for a relationship. Despite her regularly giving him the cold shoulder Fareed just would not give up.

The situation began to sap Sidra's morale and she approached Zahida on several occasions to complain about the unwelcome and intimidating behaviour of her brother. However, on each occasion Zahida laughed off the reaction by Sidra stating her brother was just being playful and that she should be proud of the attention. Sidra did not feel proud at all, in fact she became more depressed.

Sidra alleges that on September 10th 2017 At about 9am when Sidra reached the salon at which she worked she found that Fareed was already inside flirting with another beautician. When Sidra entered the premises he again tried her patience with a marriage proposal and told her she needed to become Muslim in front of her work colleague saying, Become Muslim and marry me so you can go to heaven. Sidra was deeply disturbed and angered by his suggestion and grew quiet whilst clearly registering her objection with her facial expression.

When the owner returned the next day Sidra informed her about the latest incident with her brother. Shockingly Zahida Butt reiterated that Sidra was required to embrace Islam and marry her brother. That very evening Sidra informed her parents of the harassment she received at work that day and her whole family supported her decision to resign from work. The following day Sidra did not go to work and when she was called by Zahida she explained that she was quitting her employment.

On the 17th of September however, trouble struck and one evening at 8pm Zahida came to Sidras house along with her brother and three mullahs (Islamic leaders). In the presence of Sidra's family, they demanded Sidra embrace Islam and marry Fareed 'otherwise we will trap your whole family in a blasphemy case and we will burn you' one mullah said. After being threatened the family was told: You have three days to make a decision until we will come again.

Three days later on 20th September, Sidra plucked up her courage to exit her home and left for an interview at new salon. No sooner had she left the safety of her home than three people kidnapped Sidra near the corner of her block. The men first rendered her unconscious by using what is believed to be chloroform after one man grabbed her from behind and placed a cloth over her mouth and nose. When Sidra regained consciousness she realised she had been taken to an unknown place and she could see two men holding pistols.

Before she could gain her bearings and recognise the men she felt someone put a blindfold over her eyes, bind her hands to an iron bar affixed to a gate, and tie her feet up with rope. The man covering her face spoke, said:

If you become Muslim we will leave you alone and return you to your home.

When she refused one of the men grabbed her aggressively raping her while the other two laughed and held her down. The rapist did not say any words he simply grunted but Sidra believes it was Fareed who raped her. When the man had finished she could hear pistols being cocked and then one of the assailants slapped her hard across her face three times and shouted venemously, uttering:

"I'm going to kill you now and nobody will catch us."

Pleading with them for her life she caved in and at their behest she began reciting the shahada (religious words that affirm acceptance of Islam). They also repeated the demand that she agree to the marriage; compelling her to agree to keep from being killed. This seemed to change the attitude of the men who ostensibilty had done their religious duty then bundled her in a car and dropped her off to her home - still wearing her mask. She was verbally abused and threatened with being killed if she told anyone about the incident for the length of her journey home. The spokesman said:

"Only one of us fulfilled our desire this time and if you say anything we will snatch you again all three of us will take our turn but next time we will killed you when we are done!"

At first Sidra shared her tragic story privately with her elderly mother Shamim Masih (69 yrs) who immediately went to the local police station to report the crime. When Shamim arrived at Jail Road Police Station she waited two hours before a police officer acknowledged her. When she told him what had been done to her daughter the police officer to her that they required Sidra to also attend the police station, to initiate an investigation and to come back tomorrow. When Sidra came in to make her statement, the police officers questioned her while suggesting for some unknown reason that, "she knew these men very well," and were not willing to make a report on the kidnapping, rape, assault or the death threats. A 'seemingly' sympathetic officer rather told the distressed mother that Sidra was her youngest child and that she should try to marry her off quickly before the incident became known. Forced conversion and marriage under compulsion is now supposedly illegal in Pakistan, but there is little to no enforcement preventing these abuses of vulnerable young women like Sidra who is from a marginalized religious minority.

The frightened family went to their local church and ask the pastor for help and he offered free, safe accommodation for Sidra. He only had space for Sidra so the rest of the family went to a relatives home and stayed there for a while. To avoid detection Sidra kept to the confines of her safe house for three months.

On 12th December she received a phone call from an unknown male caller who uttered a death threat saying, "We know the area you are living in and soon we will hunt you down and kill you!" Sidra hung up her phone and immediately informed her pastor of the call. Worried that the threat might be genuine the Pastor arranged a visa to Sri Lanka and booked a flight for Sidra.

Sidra arrived in Sri Lanka on 19th December at around 5:15pm with only 11kg of luggage with her. Noticing the light weight of her luggage and her Pakistani passport airport immigration officers detained her at the airport. She was quizzed for four hours and failed to impress the officials with her cover story that she was visiting the many Catholic pilgrimage sites in Negombo, which is known as 'Little Rome' across Asia. She was given devestating news that she was to be deported a practice that had occured with many other Pakistani Christians seeking asylum in Sri Lanka.

Anytime Sidra was left alone she prayed to God fervently beseeching him to help her and she read her Bible incessantly. This had an affect on the officials who could see she was a devout Christian they offered her some food and requestioned her on her faith but she could not eat due to the nerves in her stomach and at one time collapsed from exhaustion.

On 20th December at 6:30pm 24 hours after being detained Immigration officials reversed her decision and allowed her to visit Negombo even wishing her a Merry Christmas and a good trip. However, the stress of the last three days (including the two days before detainment) during which she had eaten nothing meant her health had reached a low point. It was now also three months to the day of the violence she faced. Sidra was taken to hospital by some fellow Pakistani Christians where she was admitted for three days.

Sidra has registered an asylum request with the UNHCR in Colombo, however has to wait for her travel visa to expire after a month, before she can officially apply for asylum. Sidra will be assisted by our officer Tussawar while she is in Sri Lanka. We will help with provision of a country expert report for her application in hope that sister Sidra can finally escape the trauma and persecution that awaits her in Pakistan.

Wilson Chowdhry, Chairman of the British Pakistani Christian Association, said: "I cannot imagine the deep trauma and anxiety an act of sordid brutality like this rape can have on a young woman who has done absolutely nothing to warrant such an attack.

"Christian women are among the most vulnerable civillians in Pakistan and have no protectiosn forom the law, especially when it comes to crimes of rape. Culturally women subjected to rape are considered to be promiscuous and deserving of ill treatment, rarely is a conviction for rape successful - even less so for minority Christians.

"Moreover, some Islamic clerics teach that converting women to Islam through forcible rape and marriage is a surefire way to enter into heaven, an alarming ideology that is quite prevalent in Pakistan.

"Sidra had to say a shahada to save her life and would be considered an apostate if she returns to Pakistan, she faces great risk if she ever returns back to Pakistan. Worse still the stalker who is enamoured with her does not seem willing to curb his attempts to mary her forcibly.

"In 2014 a Muslim NGO 'Movement of Solidarity and Peace' estimated that 700 Christian girls are kidnapped, raped and forced into Islamic marriage every year. Young Sidra has escaped the ultimate fate of a forced marriage - we must do all we can to save her from such devestation."

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