WASHINGTON – Pakistani police have arrested a Muslim cleric for allegedly planting evidence against Rimsha Masih, a mentally handicapped Christian girl accused of committing blasphemy by desecrating texts from the Quran.
In an ironic twist to the case, Khalid Chisti, the cleric in Masih’s neighborhood, will himself be charged with blasphemy for allegedly tearing out pages of a Quran in an effort to frame Masih, according to media reports.
Several witnesses – including Chisti’s own deputy – have come forward claiming that after a neighbor caught Masih carrying a bag of burnt trash, Chisti added pages from the Quran hoping to stir up animosity against Christians and drive them out of the neighborhood.
“I asked him what he was doing and he said this is the evidence against them and this is how we can get them out from this area,” Chisti’s deputy, Mohammad Zubair, told a Pakistani television station after the cleric’s Sept. 1 arrest, according to the Guardian.
Police officer Munir Jafferi confirmed to the Associated Press that Chisti will indeed be charged with blasphemy for allegedly desecrating the Quran, a crime that could land him in prison for life if convicted. Jafferi said police also may bring other charges against Chisti, such as planting evidence and making false allegations.
The case has drawn widespread attention since police arrested Masih for blasphemy over two weeks ago after an angry mob demanded action. Her parents are in protective custody, and her arrest has sparked new criticism of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which critics say can be used to persecute religious minorities and settle personal vendettas.
The particulars of Masih’s case – her age, mental difficulties and now the arrest of Chisti for framing her – have brought her support from the unlikeliest of corners in Pakistan.
The Guardian reported that Hafiz Mohammad Tahir Mehmood Ashrafi, chairman of the All Pakistan Ulema Council, an organization of Islamic clerics, lent his support to Masih, calling her a “daughter of the nation.”
Ashrafi, who previously was associated with a council that includes members of outlawed militant groups, harshly criticized Chisti in a news conference at an Islamabad hotel, alleging Chisti was part of a plot to drive Christians out of the neighborhood so an Islamic school could be built on their property.
Ashrafi said he decided to speak out after reading reports that Masih has Down syndrome, a mental condition his 15-year-old son also has.
“Our heads are bowed with shame for what Chishti did,” the Guardian reported him saying.
(Ashrafi’s name also has appeared as Allama Tahir Ashrafi in media reports.)
Masih’s attorney, Tahir Naveed Chaudhry, said the young girl will remain behind bars at least until Friday, after her Monday bail hearing was postponed due to a lawyers’ strike.
But even if she does make bail, her life likely will be in jeopardy. Vigilantes have murdered people accused of blasphemy, and two prominent Pakistani politicians were assassinated for simply criticizing the country’s blasphemy laws.
One of them was Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s minorities minister, who was gunned down after defending Asia Bibi, a Christian woman accused of blasphemy. His brother, Paul Bhatti, who heads the Ministry of National Harmony and is the country’s only Christian cabinet member, told the Daily Telegraph he hopes Masih will be freed.
“Her general condition is OK but as you can imagine she is a young girl locked away from her family, in a strange situation, having some learning difficulties so she is very disturbed and is often asking for her mother and to go home,” Bhatti said.
Bhatti is calling for an interfaith commission to vet blasphemy charges before they reach the courts, a small step that could still be dangerous given his brother’s fate.
“If you don’t come to take some bold steps then things will never change, the minorities will never be protected,” Bhatti told the Telegraph. “I am taking safety measures but I know the risk is there.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Compiled by John Evans, a writer in Houston.)