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Pakistani Christian girl charged with blasphemy

24 August 2012


Wall art: children play under a banner that condemns the arrest of Rimsha Masih, in Pakistan, on Tuesday

Wall art: children play under a banner that condemns the arrest of Rimsha Masih, in Pakistan, on Tuesday

A YOUNG Christian girl, Rimsha Masih, has been charged under Pakistan's blasphemy laws. She has been in detention for eight days, after she was accused of burning pages from the Qur'an.

She was arrested in a poor district of the capital, Islamabad, after Muslim neighbours alleged that she had been seen disposing of the ashes of the burnt pages. Reports of her age vary from 11 to 16, and some accounts say that she has Down syndrome.

The blasphemy laws were tightened during the regime of the military leader Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. Convictions can carry a death sentence, and opponents complain that they are routinely used to settle personal scores rather than genuine cases.

The President of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari, has called for a report on the arrest. His spokesman, Farhatullah Babar, said that the government would not allow the law to be misused.

Police say that Rimsha has been detained only to save her from an angry crowd that was demanding her death. Their protests led to the flight of several hundred Christians from the area, after the incident inflamed existing sectarian tensions.

Last week, The Guardian reported trouble in the area, after complaints about noise from three churches during services. Landlords of two of the buildings ordered an end to worship, and some services were forcibly broken up. Shopkeepers refused to serve Christians, or supply them with water. About one in ten families in the area is Christian.

The governor of Punjab province, Salmaan Taseer, was murdered in January last year, for his support of a Christian woman sentenced to death for allegedly insulting Islam ( News, 7 January 2011). He was assassinated by a bodyguard who was later hailed as a popular hero. Two months later, Shahbaz Bhatti, the Minister for Religious Minorities in Pakistan, a Christian who supported the repeal of the blasphemy laws, was murdered ( News, 4 March 2011).

Mr Bhatti's brother, Peter Bhatti, who chairs International Christian Voice, an organisation based in Canada, said that Pakistan had become increasingly influenced by extremists. "People's mindsets are changing because of the teachings of the extremists," he said. "The only solution has to be through the government, and secular people who want to bring peace and harmony. These people need to be supported by the international community."

Women's-rights groups in the country condemned the "inhumanity" of Rimsha's arrest, and said that she had been remanded in an adult prison and denied access to a lawyer. Their comments were echoed by the former Pakistan cricket captain and now opposition politician Imran Khan. "Sending an 11-year-old girl to prison is against the very spirit of Islam, which is all about being just and compassionate," he said. "The state should care for its children, not torment them. We demand her immediate release."

A former Bishop of Rochester, Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, who holds dual British-Pakistani nationality, condemned the "absurdity of the blasphemy law, and the outrageous way in which it is being used".

Interviewed on BBC Radio 4's The World at One, on Monday, he said: "The background to this is legal and social discrimination against Christian and other minorities. This is not just about the blasphemy law: there is a systemic issue here about how Pakistan treats its citizens - non-Muslims and others."

He accepted that Pakistan needed laws to prevent religious hatred, "but the punishment has to be commensurate with the offence. This is just ridiculous; this is a bad law. Is it really Islamic? We are told constantly that the Prophet of Islam forgave those who insulted him. How can there be a law prescribing the death penalty for insulting someone who forgave those who insulted him?"

David Turner, the director of Church in Chains, a charity based in Ireland, has written to the Pakistani embassy in Dublin, expressing shock at Rimsha's arrest, and appealing for her release and protection for her family.

The chairman of the British Pakistani Christian Association, Wilson Chowdhry, was due to lead a protest outside the Pakistan High Commission in London on Wednesday. News of the arrest had caused "international outrage", he said: "Quite simply, she must be freed, not only for her own health, but that of her family."

David Griffiths, the South Asia team leader for Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which campaigns for religious freedom, welcomed President Zardari's intervention, but said: "Now is the time to translate words into action and introduce much-needed reforms. . .

"The government must invest in strengthening law enforcement to prevent the escalation of hostility, threats, and violence after blasphemy accusations are made, and tackling the way that extremist mindsets are fostered through the education system."

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