(ADDS MORE DETAILS ABOUT FORCED MARRIAGES IN BANGLADESH)
By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
DHAKA, BANGLADESH (BosNewsLife)– A Bangladeshi Christian evangelist, who says he was forced to marry a Muslim woman and pressured to return to Islam, has appeared in front of a Dhaka court for allegedly mistreating his wife.
Mark Huda Junayed said Saturday, December 22, that the bride’s family claims he “tortured” her because she refused to handover 200,000 Bangladeshi takas ($2,500) for the traditional dowry.
However, “These charges are false,” he told BosNewsLife. “Her family is angry because I don’t want to stay with her and plan a divorce. She is 40, but I am just 20. I don’t want to marry yet,” he said.
Under the country’s civil laws he is a minor as the legal age of consent and minimum age for marriage is 21 for men and 18 for women.
His case is no exception in the Asian nation where marriages are predominantly arranged because of poverty and religious traditions. U.S investigators and rights activists say Bangladesh does not have a clear law banning forced marriage.
“Marrying off minors is a criminal offence, and persons who marry off minors may be prosecuted under the Child Marriage Restraint Act. However, the marriage itself would not be invalidated by this process,” the U.S State Department said in a recent report.
Most of those forced to marry are girls. Some 66 percent of girls wed before their 18th birthday – up 2 percent from 2009, according to last year’s report from the United Nations children’s fund UNICEF .
Yet, as Junayed’s case shows, young men, boys and elderly women are also impacted by the country’s long tradition of arranged, and often forced, marriages.
The State Department says the practice violates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states that “no marriage shall be entered into without the free and full consent of the intending spouses”.
Washington also “considers forced marriage to be a human rights abuse [and] in the case of minors also a form of child abuse. Often, victims are subjected to non-consensual sex, physical and emotional abuse, isolation, and threats of violence.”
Junayed said he was forced to marry after his Muslim stepmother discovered he had converted to Christianity. “When my stepmother found out I go to church, she and her relatives abducted me,” the Christian told BosNewsLife.
“On August 7 they brought me to an unknown place in the Zatrabari area in capital Dhaka,” he said. “There I was forced to marry a Muslim woman they bought for me, according to Islamic law. This way they wanted to make sure I would remain a Muslim. However I never had sexual relations with her.”
Junayed explained that he wanted to leave, just as Joseph in the Bible ran away from a woman who wanted to sleep with him. “On August 8, I cut my hand with a blade I found in the bathroom. I told them I would commit suicide if they continued to hold me.”
He managed to escape, but the woman’s family soon launched a trial against him. “I was delivering Bibles when I learned that police was searching for me,” he recalled. “Praise the Lord they did not find me at the time.”
During this week’s hearing, the Bangladesh High Court in Dhaka declined to detain him as requested by the plaintiffs, according to court documents obtained by BosNewsLife. Junayed, who visits an evangelical church in Dhaka, cautioned he could still be jailed at a later stage.
“Justice Siddiqur Rahman Miah said I have to go to the Magistrate Court for my final release within eight weeks. But I don’t have money for that since I already gave 300 dollars to a lawyer. The next legal procedure cost 200 dollars,” at least two times the average monthly salaries in Bangladesh, he explained.
“Without lawyers and money nothing happens here in a court of law,” complained Junayed, who is hiding in Bangladesh at an undisclosed location.
Junayed, a former Muslim, views his trial as part of a wider crackdown by Islamists on minority Christians, who comprise less than 1 percent of the country’s mainly Muslim population of over 150 million people.
Open Doors, an international Christian advocacy group, has also expressed concerns about reported raids on church meetings and said Christians are “being physically harmed”.
Yet despite the setbacks, Junayed said his faith is strong and that he continues Bible studies to become an even more effective evangelist and church worker.
“I accepted Jesus Christ in 2010”, turning away from Islam, the young man said.
“Nobody forced me to become a disciple of Christ when I made that decision while still studying at university,” he recalled.
“I just discovered peace,love and repenting change in the Bible,” Junayed stressed.
Christians wanting to help Junayed financially, or with prayers, were advised to contact him via email hmjunayed @ gmail.com or to call him through BosNewsLife (email@example.com) which has his phone number.