B.K. Bangash/Associated PressBy DECLAN WALSH and SALMAN MASOOD
Published: August 20, 2012
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The arrest and imprisonment of a Christian girl accused of violating Pakistan’s blasphemy laws stoked a public furor on Monday, renewing international scrutiny of growing intolerance toward minorities in the country.
The police jailed the girl, Rimsha Masih, and her mother on Friday after hundreds of Muslim protesters surrounded the police station here where they were being held, demanding that Ms. Masih face charges under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. A local cleric had said Ms. Masih had burned pages of the Noorani Qaida, a religious textbook used to teach the Koran to children.
By Monday night, as Pakistani Muslims celebrated the feast of Id al-Fitr, Ms. Masih and her mother were being held in Adiala jail, a grim facility in nearby Rawalpindi, awaiting their fate. Meanwhile, a number of the girl’s Christian neighbors had fled their homes, fearing for their lives, human rights workers said.
Senior government and police officials agreed with Christian leaders that the accusations against Ms. Masih were baseless and predicted that the case would ultimately be dropped.
Still, the case has already grabbed global headlines and inspired a hail of Twitter posts, even though several details are in dispute.
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. Last week, gunmen executed 25 Shiites after taking them off a bus near Mansehra, in northwestern Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province. On Saturday, Hindu leaders in Sindh called on the government to protect their community from forced conversions by Muslim extremists.
But it is the emotionally charged blasphemy issue that has most polarized society. Ever since the governor of Punjab Province, Salmaan Taseer, was gunned down by his own bodyguard in January 2011 for his support of blasphemy reforms, the space for public debate has narrowed in Pakistan.
Violent mobs led by clerics have framed the argument, as appears to have happened in Ms. Masih’s case.
Neighbors said the girl’s family were sweepers — work shunned by Muslims but common among poor Christians — and lived in a slum area in Islamabad.
Malik Amjad, landlord of the family’s rented house, said the controversy started early last week after his nephew saw Ms. Masih holding a burned copy of the Noorani Qaida. The nephew informed a local cleric, Khalid Jadoon, Mr. Amjad said.
Desecration of Muslim holy texts is illegal in Pakistan and punishable by death. But Mr. Amjad said the incident bothered few local residents initially and caught fire only at the instigation of the cleric and two conservative shopkeepers.
“He tried to shame people by saying, ‘What good are your prayers if the Koran is being burnt?’ ” Mr. Amjad said.
Mr. Amjad said he handed the girl over to the police for her own protection and criticized the cleric’s role. “He exaggerated the incident and provoked people,” he said.
It was not clear how, or even if, Ms. Masih had come across the burned religious book. One neighbor, Malik Shahid, said it might have simply become accidentally swept up in a trash pile she was collecting.
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.
Several have been killed by vigilantes; others have been forced to flee Pakistan.