MUMBAI, India – Catholic leaders in Pakistan have added their voices to the condemnation of the rape and murder of a seven-year-old girl in the eastern part of Punjab province.

“Pakistan, once again, has failed to protect its children,” said a statement released by the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP), an arm of the nation’s Catholic bishops’ conference.

The girl, Zainab Ansari, disappeared last week while going to a nearby home for Quranic studies and her body was found strangled in a garbage pile in the city of Kasur on Tuesday.

The autopsy report suggested she had been tortured.

“While praying for the soul of the deceased, her family and other victims, Archbishop [Joseph] Arshad said that the whole nation weeps for this sin. It is a sin that shames us. Let us find the courage needed to take all necessary measures and to protect in every way the lives of our children, so that such crimes may never be repeated,” the statement continued.

Arshad is the chairperson of the NCJP.

The child’s murder sparked clashes Wednesday between angry Kasur residents and police after protesters enraged over her death attacked a police station in the city after police were accused of doing too little to stop a series of child murders in the city, and being insensitive to the families of the victims.

At least two people were killed in the protests, and three others were wounded.

The NCJP pointed to statistics showing Pakistan having the 11th highest rate of child sexual assault in the world, and being the third most dangerous country for women.

Kasur was the scene of one of Pakistan’s biggest child abuse scandals in 2015, when it was revealed a child pornography ring was operating in the city for over a decade.

According to Pakistan’s child protection agency, in 2017 there were 12 cases of rape and murder of minor girls in Kasur, all aged between 5 to 8.

Noting the resources now being used to catch Ansari’s killer after the media spotlight on her murder and the resulting protests, the NCJP said it “would like to plead the competent authorities to take under consideration all the other cases related to child abuse and bring perpetrators to exemplary justice.”

The Catholic body then gave several demands to the government:

  • Pakistan’s Child Protection Bureau should be active at district level throughout Pakistan. Their role and responsibility, function and quality need to be redefined in line with the protection and promotion of the children.
  • The police should be sensitized over the issues related to protection of children. Cases of missing children and abduction of children should be given a priority by law enforcement agencies.
  • Local police officers, political leaders and other government officials should be discharged from their duty for not cooperating with the family of the victim and strict actions should be taken against them.
  • The government should form a judicial commission to develop legislation to address the issue of child abuse and child pornography.

“Children are the future of our nation; in order to protect them the government needs to ensure its social, moral and international commitments towards child rights,” the statement said, making particular reference to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

“We hope that the government will seriously address the demands and work for the protection and security of the all children throughout Pakistan,” the statement concluded.

Speaking to Crux, Arshad said, “We are very concerned about the general situation in Pakistani society.”

Noting that the circumstances in each case are different, the archbishop insisted the government must act on a national level, through legislation and other measures.

“There are many young people without work. Creating job opportunities for young people is essential,” he said.

Pakistan is officially an Islamic Republic, and over 96 percent of the population is Muslim. Hindus and Christians each make up about 2 percent of the population.

In recent years, minority religions – including minority Islamic sects such as Shia and Ahmadi Muslims – have faced violence, both by terrorists and angry mobs.

When asked if Christian youth were at particular risk of violence or exploitation, Arshad said this was sometimes the case.

“In some areas, it was a matter of serious concern, that young teenaged girls – Hindus and Christians were being kidnapped and forcibly married off,” he said.

“The prevalent mindset cannot be beaten by academic education alone, the government and religious leaders must work together to stop this heinous crime against our vulnerable and innocent children. People, and society, should be re-educated about human dignity,” Arshad said.

The archbishop said officials such as police must also be made to carry out their jobs in a professional manner.

“The system is corrupt, and also negligent, unless public pressure is put, they act very slowly,” he said.