Blasphemy Laws Continue to Persecute Christians
By Aidan Clay
Washington, D.C. August 23 (International Christian Concern) – A Christian girl allegedly found carrying burned pages of the Quran was arrested Friday and could be punished by death for blasphemy. Accusations that the girl defiled the Quran stoked a furor of public anger in a poor outlying district of Islamabad. Several Christian homes were burned by a Muslim mob that had called for the girl's execution. Hundreds of Christians have since fled the area.
Rimsha Misrak was arrested for blaspheming Islam on August 16 after she was allegedly spotted by neighbors with a plastic bag containing burned pages of the Quran in the Meira Abadi district of Islamabad. The accusations started when Muhammad Hammad, a 23-year-old Muslim, claimed he had caught Rimsha "red-handed" with the burnt pages from the Quran and Islamic prayers in Arabic. According to a police official, however, there was little evidence suggesting the girl had burned, or even possessed, any Islamic texts in the bag she was carrying.
Rimsha, who relatives say is 12 years old, reportedly has Down syndrome, though ICC sources in Islamabad have not been able to verify the child's mental state. Rimsha is being held in police custody in Rawalpindi on charges of blasphemy and is expected to appear in court before the end of the month.
"I met the girl at the police station when she was arrested and she is suffering from trauma," Xavier P William, the Country Director of Masihi Foundation Pakistan, told BBC. "The crowd wanted to burn her alive… She is an innocent child - she doesn't even know what she did. She is in a state of shock. Her bail is being filed this week and she will hopefully be released."
The day following Rimsha's arrest, a Muslim mob, ranging from 600 – 1,000 people, set several Christian homes ablaze, assaulted Rimsha's mother and sister, and called for the child to be burned to death as a blasphemer. Hundreds of Christians have since fled their homes in fear for their lives.
"More than 250 Christian families moved to safer places after the allegation," Shalom Basharat, a human rights activist in Islamabad, told ICC. "The mob encompassed the Christians' houses and demanded the 'blasphemer' to be hanged. The angry mob tortured Rimsha's parents and other Christians. They blocked the main Kashmir Highway for hours and chanted slogans against Rimsha."
After the flight of Christians from the area, Basharat said that Christian homes were broken into and looted. "The mob attacked the Christians' houses and damaged the main gates, doors, and windows," he explained. "Some of the Christians spent that night on the footpaths and the day (August 17) in the parks without food and water. However, church leadership and political representatives… played a vital role by providing shelter and food to the displaced Christian families."
Pakistan's blasphemy codes have frequently been used to harass Christians or settle tribal disputes under the protection of law. Some believe that Rishma's case was stirred for no other reason than jealousy and religious rivalry within the community.
"A few Christian families in Meira Abadi are financially sound and live better than some local Muslims. As a result of hatred against the non-Muslim community, a poor Christian family was targeted to teach other Christians a lesson," said an ICC source in Islamabad who asked that his name not be disclosed for security reasons.
Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari took "serious note" of Rimsha's arrest, saying, "Blasphemy by anyone cannot be condoned, but no one will be allowed to misuse the blasphemy law for settling personal scores," according to a spokesman. The Interior Ministry was ordered to investigate the incident.
Under Pakistan's blasphemy laws, anyone found guilty of insulting Muhammad or defiling the Quran can face life in prison or execution. Though it is rare for an offender to be executed by a Pakistani court verdict, 46 of the 1,060 people charged for blasphemy between 1986 and 2011 have been killed by mob justice while awaiting trial or after having been acquitted, according to a report by the advocacy group Human Rights First. In a recent case, for example, thousands of Muslims dragged a man accused of blasphemy from a police station in Bahawalpur, beat him to death and set his body on fire in July.
In the case of Rimsha, however, Paul Bhatti, the head of the Ministry of National Harmony in Pakistan, is hopeful the blasphemy accusations will soon be forgotten once charges are dropped. "If [Rimsha] is not guilty, some can understand and they can forgive," Mr. Bhatti, whose brother Shahbaz Bhatti was assassinated last year by the Pakistani Taliban for advocating reform of the blasphemy laws, told The Washington Post. "But there are people who just want to have death."