GUJRANWALA, Pakistan – Hundreds young women from Pakistan's small Christian minority have been trafficked to China as brides in recent months as their impoverished community is targeted in an aggressive new marriage market, activists and officials say.
Brokers offer desperately poor parents thousands of dollars to give girls in marriage to Chinese men, even cruising outside churches for potential brides. They are helped by Christian pastors paid to preach to their congregations with promises of wealth in exchange for their daughters.
Once in China, the girls — most often married against their will — can find themselves isolated in rural regions, vulnerable to abuse, unable to communicate and reliant on a translation app even for a glass of water. Touted as wealthy Christian converts, the grooms often turn out to be neither, according to accounts from brides, their parents, an activist, pastors and government officials, speaking to The Associated Press.
"This is human smuggling," said Aslam Augustine, the human rights and minorities minister in Pakistan's Punjab province, in an interview with the AP. "Greed is really responsible for these marriages ... I have met with some of these girls and they are very poor."
The Associated Press interviewed more than a dozen Christian Pakistani brides and would-be brides who fled before exchanging vows. All had similar accounts of a process involving brokers and members of the clergy.
"It is all fraud and cheating. All the promises they make are fake," said Muqadas Ashraf, who was 16 when her parents married her off to a Chinese man last year. Less than five months later, she returned to Pakistan, pregnant and seeking a divorce.
In China, demand for foreign brides has mounted, a legacy of the one-child policy that skewed the country's gender balance toward males. Brides initially came largely from Vietnam, Laos and North Korea. Now men are looking further afield, said Mimi Vu, director of advocacy at Pacific Links, which helps trafficked Vietnamese women.
"It's purely supply and demand," she said. "It used to be, 'Is she light-skinned?' Now it's like, 'Is she female?'"
Pakistan seems to have come onto marriage brokers' radar late last year.
Saleem Iqbal, a Christian activist, said he first began to see significant numbers of marriages to Chinese men in October. Since then, an estimated 750 to 1,000 girls have been married off, he said.
Pakistan's small Christian community is particularly vulnerable. It is among the country's poorest and has little political or social supporting, numbering some 2.5 million in Pakistan's overwhelmingly Muslim population of 200 million.
Among all faiths in Pakistan, parents often decide a daughter's marriage partner. The deeply patriarchal society often sees girls as a burden because the bride's family must pay a dowry and the cost of the wedding.
By contrast, potential Chinese grooms offer parents money and pay all wedding expenses.
Some of the grooms are from among the tens of thousands of Chinese in Pakistan working on infrastructure projects under Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative. Other grooms search directly from China through networks. They present themselves as Christian converts, but pastors complicit in the deals don't ask for any documentation.
They pay on average $3,500 to $5,000, including payments to parents, pastors and a broker, said Iqbal.
Muqadas' mother Nasreen said she was promised about $5,000, including wedding costs. "But I have not seen anything yet," she said.
"I really believed I was giving her a chance at a better life and also a better life for us," Nasreen said. When her daughter became increasingly miserable in China, Nasreen contacted the husband and demanded her daughter be sent home.
Dozens of Pakistani priests are paid by brokers to find brides for Chinese men, said Augustine, the provincial minorities minister, who is Christian. Many are from the small evangelical churches that have proliferated in Pakistan.
In Gujranwala, a city north of Lahore, more than 100 local Christian women and girls have been married off to Chinese in recent months, according to Iqbal.
The city has several mainly Christian neighborhoods, largely dirt poor with open sewers running along narrow slum streets.
Pastor Munch Morris, who serves at a local evangelical church, opposes such marriages. But he said he knows a group of pastors in his neighborhood who work with a private Chinese marriage broker. Among them, he said, is a fellow pastor at his church who tells his flock, "God is happy because these Chinese boys convert to Christianity. They are helping the poor Christian girls."
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 flock against such marriages.
Human Rights Watch called on China and Pakistan to take action to end bride trafficking, warning in an April 26 statement of "increasing evidence that Pakistani women and girls are at risk of sexual slavery in China."
On Monday, Pakistan's Federal Investigation Agency arrested eight Chinese nationals and four Pakistanis in raids in Punjab in connection with trafficking, Geo TV reported. It said the raids followed an undercover operation that included attending an arranged marriage.
The Chinese embassy said last month that China is cooperating with Pakistan to crack down on unlawful matchmaking centers, saying "both Chinese and Pakistani youths are victims of these illegal agents."
Kang reported from Linyi, China. Associated Press researcher Shanshan Wang in Beijing contributed to this report