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Wednesday, August 22

"Welcome to Pakistan: A nightmare society beyond pity or parody:" More on the case of a Pakistani Christian child accused of blasphemy

In Pakistan, Christians traditionally have worked as cleaners and sweepers; many Muslims still consider them “unclean."

The New York Times reported on August 20 that "senior police officers" involved in the case of Rimsha Masih claim that she's 16, not 11, and "100 percent mentally" fit, which goes against claims by Christians and Muslims in her neighborhood that she suffers from Down syndrome. (See the end of this post for excerpts from the Times report.) AFP reported today that the girl is between 10 and 13 years old and "reported to have Down's Syndrome."  AFP also mentions that the girl's first name is Rimsha, not Rifta as the press had previously reported.

But the Times report stresses that the disputed facts about the child's age and mental condition don't change the fundamentals, which is that an accusation of blasphemy leveled against a child is an outrage -- outrage that's gone global. Amnesty International and the U.S. Department of State and France's foreign ministry have added their voices to the chorus of criticism and concern about Rimsha's plight, which has also touched off a furor in Pakistan and brought forth several editorials in the Pakistani press.  But below I'm featuring in its entirety Iman Sheikh's op-ed for Canada's National Post. Her writing adds details about Rimsha's situation that weren't available in the early press accounts, and she does a great job of summarizing the plight of Pakistan's Christians and what it says about Pakistan.

Just so everyone's clear on the seriousness of this issue, another Pakistani Christian is in prison awaiting a death sentence to be carried out for blasphemy.
Pakistan’s anti-Christian witch hunt
by Iman Sheikh
National Post
August 21, 2012

Rifta Masih is an 11-year-old Christian girl who lives near Islamabad, Pakistan. She reportedly suffers from Down’s Syndrome. Like many of the other Christians in her area — who comprise about 10% of the local population — the members of her family work menial jobs, and live in tiny properties rented from Muslim landlords.

On Thursday evening, Rifta was seen leaving the one-room dwelling she lives in with her sister and parents, carrying an earthenware dish filled with ash. Or, it may have been some refuse in a small shopping bag. Although Hammad Malik, a 23-year-old witness, is unclear on exactly what the girl was transporting, he is quite certain that the burnt remains had Arabic writing on them.

Rifta, he alleges, was burning pages from a Koran inside her house, and then trying to find a place to dispose of the remains. Although he did not see her do this, that did not stop him from assembling an angry group of men and reporting the incident to the local police, with the demand that the girl be apprehended in accordance with the country’s Blasphemy Law. The authorities at first did not act, but then moved swiftly to get the girl into custody when a mob of over 500 people gathered at the Masih home’s doorstep. Fearing for her safety, the authorities put her into a cell for a two-week detention.

Welcome to Pakistan: A nightmare society beyond pity or parody, where handicapped 11-year-old girls must be locked up to ensure their own safety.

According to the Blasphemy Law, anyone found guilty of insulting the Prophet Muhammad or the Koran can be sentenced to death. With blind religious extremism on the upswing, there is no shortage of Hammad Malik types — self-appointed religious vigilantes on the lookout for any transgression, real or imagined. The law has been enforced in regard to even the most dubious reports of “blasphemy,” and has led to the murder of two prominent politicians.

In January 2011, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was shot by his own bodyguard after he expressed sympathy for Asia Noreen, a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy. Scarcely two months later, Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s first Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs and the only Christian in Pakistan’s Cabinet, was leaving his mother’s home in Islamabad when his car was sprayed with bullets. (The Pakistani Taliban has claimed responsibility for the killing.)

The aforementioned Noreen, better known in the media as “Asia Bibi,” was a farmhand who fetched water for her coworkers. When some Muslims refused to drink the water on account of it being contaminated by an “unclean” Christian, heated work-site arguments allegedly ensued. Later, a cleric received complaints that Noreen made derogatory comments about the Prophet Muhammad. A mob arrived at her house, attacking her and her family before she was rescued by the police. This was in June 2009. She is still in jail.

The Blasphemy Law can be manipulated by cynical plaintiffs, as a tool to take personal retribution. In the case of Asia Bibi, there had been a pre-existing feud between Noreen and a Muslim neighbour over property damage. In Rifta’s case, relations between the Muslim and Christian communities had been tense for months after complaints were made about the noise coming from churches in the area during religious services.

In Pakistan, Christians traditionally have worked as cleaners and sweepers; many Muslims still consider them “unclean.” About 900 Christians living on the outskirts of Islamabad have been ordered to leave the neighbourhood and the homes they have inhabited for two decades. On Sunday, houses on the backstreets of Mehrabadi, an area 20 minutes drive from Islamabad’s western embassies and government ministries, were locked up and abandoned, their frightened occupants having relocated to already overcrowded Christian slums in and around the capital.

Pakistan is a country with many problems — from corruption to terrorism to regional secession movements. But none captures the primitive, bigoted spirit of the nation’s religious extremists more perfectly than the witch hunt for “blasphemers” that has been used to persecute the country’s tiny, beleaguered Christian community. If an 11-year-old handicapped girl is considered fair game for the fanatics, what chance does anyone else have?
From the New York Times report I mentioned above:
Christian Girl’s Blasphemy Arrest Incites a Furor in Pakistanby Declan Walsh and Salman Masood [reporting from Islamabad]
August 20, 2012
The New York Times

[...]
Christian, and some Muslim, neighbors said Ms. Masih was 11 years old and had Down syndrome. Senior police officers dismissed those claims; one described her as 16 and “100 percent mentally fit.”

Whatever the truth, experts said Ms. Masih’s plight highlighted a wider problem. “This case exemplifies the absurdity and tragedy of the blasphemy law, which is an instrument of abuse against the most vulnerable in society,” said Ali Dayan Hasan of Human Rights Watch.

While non-Muslims have long been vulnerable to persecution in Pakistan, the state’s ability to protect them is diminishing.

[Pundita note: Given the documented history of famous blasphemy cases in Pakistan, I seriously question whether the state's ability or will to provide protection was ever that strong]
[...]

The Pakistani police often are forced to register blasphemy cases against their wishes, human rights campaigners say, either to save the accused blasphemer or their own officers from attack.

In July, a large crowd, prompted by inflammatory statements from local mosques, swarmed a police station in Bahawalpur district in southern Punjab, searching for a blasphemy suspect who was being interrogated by police. The mob seized the man, beat him to death and burned his body outside the station.

A similar mob attack occurred in June in Karachi, Pakistan’s most populous city, although in that case the police beat back the protesters.

The turmoil comes just days after Pakistanis marked the country’s 65th independence anniversary amid muted ceremonies and considerable soul-searching across the political spectrum.

“Desecrating graves, arresting 11 year old with Down syndrome, targeting of Shias — the list goes on. This is not what r religion is about,” Shireen Mazari, a staunch nationalist commentator, said on Twitter.

The adviser to the prime minister on national harmony, Dr. Paul Bhatti, said he hoped to defuse Ms. Masih’s situation through talks with moderate Muslim leaders. Dr. Bhatti is the brother of Shahbaz Bhatti, a minister for minorities who was gunned down outside his Islamabad home in early 2011, weeks after Mr. Taseer’s death.

Even if Ms. Masih avoids blasphemy charges, her family is unlikely to ever return home. Although nobody has been executed under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, even suspected blasphemers are in danger for the rest of their lives.


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