A Catholic bishop in Pakistan has warned of an increase in young Christian and Hindu girls being kidnapped, then forced to convert to Islam and marry their captors.

“There have been many kidnappings recently,” Archbishop Sebastian Shaw of Lahore told papal charity Aid to the Church in Need.

“The girls are usually 14, 15. The men often already have one wife. They can be 25 or older. They can also be younger, more like 20,” he added.

The archbishop said he believes the kidnappings sometimes include a religious motivation, since the victims are typically Christian or Hindu. However, he also said that the perpetrators are driven by lust.

According to Aid to the Church in Need, research in Pakistan indicates that up to 700 girls were kidnapped in one year alone.

Shaw said Church leaders had reported the abductions to the police, who were unresponsive. They then contacted government officials, who were more receptive to their concerns.

“Along with the Islamic council, they arranged a meeting with myself and leaders from the Muslim and Hindu communities,” the archbishop said. During that meeting, “[o]ne young Islamic scholar criticized the kidnappings and said forced conversions are not allowed.”

Shaw stressed the importance of enforcing laws against kidnapping in order to end the growing surge of abductions.

“Kidnapping is a crime. It has to be treated as one,” he told Aid to the Church in Need.

In August, Catholic and other religious leaders signed a joint resolution asking the Pakistani government to adopt safeguards protecting religious minorities, a move that they said is much needed in the 97% Muslim nation.

They asked for protections against religious discrimination in education and employment, designated minority worship areas in hospitals and jails, protection of houses of worship, the creation of a federal ministry for religious minorities, and that the minimum age for marriage be raised from 16 to 18 for women.

Last December, U.S. Secretary State Michael Pompeo said Pakistan would be labeled as a “country of particular concern,” a label designating nations that sponsor or permit egregious, ongoing religious freedom violations. Pakistan had previously been on a special watch list.

Earlier in the year, the U.S. Commission International Religious Freedom had warned of a rise of extremism in Pakistan, as well as a “culture of impunity” in which vigilante mobs attack people on the basis of blasphemy accusations.

In February 2019, U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom Sam Brownback said that after meeting with Pakistani officials, he saw a willingness to improve the country’s record on religious freedom. He said Pakistan’s foreign minister voiced an intention to designate an official to address concerns raised by U.S.

Earlier this month, an EU official told CNA that the acquittal and release of Asia Bibi - a Catholic woman who spent nearly a decade on death row for blasphemy charges - showed promise for the development of religious freedom in Pakistan.

Bibi was convicted of blasphemy in 2009 sentenced to death by hanging. She was accused of making disparaging remarks about the prophet Muhammad after an argument about a cup of water. She was held on death row until October 2018 when her conviction was overturned.

After the acquittal, there were protests by Islamic hardliners, and Bibi remained in Pakistan under protective custody until May 2019. She is now in a secret location in Canada with her family.

Archbishop Shaw told Aid to the Church in Need that he is hopeful about the direction Pakistan is moving, under the guidance of Prime Minister Imran Khan, who took office last year.

“The present government is working on equality,” he said.

He is also optimistic about the future of the Catholic Church in Pakistan, which is composed largely of young people, and offers quality educational and professional support.

“We have a good catechetical program and teach them why they are Christian,” he said. “We train them for dialogue with Muslims. We teach them the difference between dialogue and debate.”