"Pastors" in Pakistan are being paid by sex traffickers to find brides for Chinese men among their church congregations, a disturbing new report has revealed.
The Associated Press reports that sex traffickers offer Christian parents in Pakistan thousands of dollars to give girls in marriage to Chinese men. Pakistan's Christian community makes a vulnerable target, notes the report, as the religious group is among the country's most impoverished and makes up just 2.5% of the population.
Christian pastors are paid by sex traffickers to preach to their congregations with promises of wealth in exchange for their daughters. Parents receive a few thousand dollars and are promised about $280 a month in future payments as well as a Chinese visa for a male family member. They're also told their new sons-in-law are wealthy Christian converts.
However, that's rarely the case, notes the Associated Press, which interviewed over a dozen Christian Pakistani brides or would-be brides who fled before exchanging vows.
Once the brides arrive in China, many of them forced to live in rural, isolated towns. With a significant language barrier, they are subject to abuse and forced to rely on a translation app to communicate with their husbands.
Muqadas Ashraf, who was 16 when her parents married her off to a Chinese man last year, returned to Pakistan less than five months later, pregnant and seeking a divorce.
"It is all fraud and cheating. All the promises they make are fake," she said.
One pastor who leads an evangelical church in Gujranwala, a city north of Lahore, told the AP of a fellow pastor who tells his flock, "God is happy because these Chinese boys convert to Christianity. They are helping the poor Christian girls." He revealed that in that city alone, over 100 girls have disappeared.
Rizwan Rashid, a parishioner at the city's Roman Catholic St. John's Church, said that two weeks earlier, a car pulled up to him outside the church gates. Two Pakistani men and a Chinese woman inside asked him if he knew of any girls who want to marry a Chinese man.
"They told me her life would be great," he said. They were willing to pay him to help, but he said he refused because the church's priest often warns his congregation against such marriages.
The AP notes that in Pakistan, girls are seen as less desirable than boys and as a burden because the bride's family must pay a dowry and the cost of the wedding when they marry. By contrast, potential Chinese grooms offer parents money and pay all wedding expenses.
Ijaz Alam Augustine, the human rights and minorities minister in Pakistan's Punjab province, told the AP that "greed is really responsible for these marriages."
"I have met with some of these girls and they are very poor," he said.
The AP reports that since October, thousands of girls have been forced into sham marriages, some as young as 13 years old.
In April, Human Rights Watch called on China and Pakistan to take action to end bride trafficking, pointing to "increasing evidence that Pakistani women and girls are at risk of sexual slavery in China."
Last month, the embassy said China was cooperating with Pakistani law enforcement agencies to crack down on illegal matchmaking, Reuters reports.
On Monday, Pakistani authorities arrested 12 suspected members of a prostitution ring taking young Pakistani women to China, according to the South China Morning Post. A senior official at the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) in Lahore, capital of Punjab province, said a female Chinese national and a fake Pakistani priest were among the detainees.