WASHINGTON – Controversy continues to swirl around Pakistan’s blasphemy law after the arrest of a young Christian girl for defiling words from the Quran.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has asked the country’s Interior Ministry for a report about the Aug. 16 arrest of Rimshah Masih, described as an 11-year-old with Down syndrome in various media reports.
Even so, Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom and a former member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, suggested an ominous fate for the girl, in a National Review Online blog Aug. 21.
Any person accused of blasphemy – disproportionately Christians and other religious minorities – faces murder by vigilantes, even if he or she is merely accused or even acquitted, Shea noted.
“In July in Punjab province, a mob whipped into a frenzy by radical leaders hunted down a man thought to have blasphemed against Islam, beat him to death, and burned his body outside a police station,” Shea wrote. “In other cases, defendants awaiting trial, or even those who have been released or acquitted, along with the acquitting judge, have been murdered or threatened with murder.”
The high rate of vigilantism surrounding the law makes it an easy way to persecute religious minorities with false accusation or settle personal scores, various media noted.
Two high-ranking Pakistani officials who criticized the blasphemy law, minister of minority affairs Shahbaz Bhatti and Punjab governor Salman Taseer, were gunned down by Islamic radicals. While the U.S. State Department speaks of “misuse” of the blasphemy law, the law itself must be opposed, Shea wrote.
“No reform or legal tweaking can perfect this law,” she noted. “It is an irredeemably unjust statute that is routinely used to persecute minorities, crush reformers, and in the process subvert the rule of law and individual freedoms.”
The current case started when the nephew of the girl’s landlord said he saw Masih holding a burned copy of an Islamic religious text that included quotations from the Quran, according to The New York Times. According to some reports, the girl had inadvertently burned the papers while cleaning.
The nephew then informed a local cleric, who helped stir up initially apathetic residents. Hundreds of neighbors gathered outside her home and demanded the police take action, threatening to burn down Christian homes and burn the girl alive themselves.
“On Friday I got reports that in a village on the outskirts of Islamabad, some 1,000 men had gathered after the Friday prayers sermons where the local cleric had asked for the massacre of Christians in the neighborhood over blasphemy by a Christian girl,” Paul Bhatti (brother of Shahbaz Bhatti), adviser to the prime minister for National Harmony, told the Christian Science Monitor. “But due to timely action by the police, we were able to calm the crowd.”
Police arrested the girl and charged her with blasphemy, and her parents were placed in protective custody. Bhatti said the police actions were done to protect her and other Christians from vigilantes.
“If the girl was free and not in jail, it would have been impossible to protect her,” he told the Monitor.
Media reports differ about the girl’s mental health, with some reporting that she has Down syndrome while senior police officers told The Times she is “100 percent mentally fit.”
Pakistani police and government officials say the accusations against the girl are baseless and the case will probably be dropped, according to media reports, but Christians have begun fleeing her neighborhood in fear of attacks by angry Muslims.
The Washington Post reported that hundreds of Christians have fled to other neighborhoods in Islamabad, while those who remain face threats from shopkeepers.
“They said they will burn our house down if we don’t leave,” a 17-year-old told the Post. “They are also saying that since a woman burned the Quran, they will come after our women now.”
Given the climate of vigilantism surrounding blasphemy cases, the girl and her family will likely never be able to return home.
“Even if the law changes, who will change the mindset of the people?” Bhatti asked the Monitor. “It is very important that we first create interfaith harmony in Pakistan, without which such discrimination against non-Muslims will continue.”
“Christians, Ahmadiyyas, Shiites and Hindus have been disproportionately targeted under Pakistan’s blasphemy law,” Shea noted, adding that “moderate and reformist Muslims from the country’s Sunni majority have also been victimized….”
“The United States government needs to understand the dynamic of the blasphemy law and get its response right,” Shea wrote. “This threat is spreading: Blasphemy charges are surfacing in Egypt and Tunisia along with the rise of Islamist rule, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation persistently presses for such laws within the United Nations.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Compiled by John Evans, a writer in Houston, and Baptist Press editor Art Toalston.)