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On August 16, a fourteen-year-old Christian girl, Rimsha Masih, was arrested in Islamabad for having allegedly burned pages from the Quran. She was found carrying a plastic bag containing several singed papers inscribed in Arabic. It was then unclear whether the leaves had come from the Quran; but an incensed mob, tipped off by the local imam, had converged at her door, threatening to torch the house.
300 Christian families fled in the incident’s wake for fear that they, as minorities, would be made scapegoats – as has happened in previous infringements of Pakistan’s unforgiving blasphemy laws. As investigations ensued, however, authorities’ perusal of Rimsha’s medical reports revealed she had been born with Down’s Syndrome and that her mental age was several years shy of her real age. A game-changing revelation rocked the case when a month later, Khalid Jadoon, the religious leader who had initially called the police, was arrested on suspicion of having planted the burned papers.
In an interview with ABC News the day before his arrest, Jadoon stoically declared that Rimsha had confessed to the burning of the pages. “It’s a matter of my religion. If there’s a threat to Islam, if our government doesn’t stand up to that person, then the people will. I’ll be the first of them.”
What Jadoon had really meant by “threat” became clear when two witnesses and Jadoon’s deputy, Hafiz Muhammad Zubair, brought evidence against him. Zubair had seen several people handing Jadoon some burnt papers. To this pile Jadoon had added additional pages of the Quran. “I asked him what he was doing,” Zubair told a television station, “and he said, ‘This is the evidence against them (the local Christians) and this how we can get them out from this area.’”
Religious tension as just one factor
Rimsha’s arrest had been at the nucleus of a larger scheme to evict Christian families from the neighborhood. “I have known for the last three months that some people in this area wanted the Christian community to leave so they could build a madrasa (on their land),” Hafiz Mohammad Ashrafi, Chairman of the All Pakistan Ulema Council, a body of senior muslim clerics, reportedly said. “Our heads are bowed with shame for what [Jadoon] did.”
Breaking the political code of simply glossing over religious tensions, Paul Bhatti, the minister for national harmony, conceded, “It is not just a religious problem. It’s a caste factor, because (the victims) belong to the poorest and most marginalized people. Unfortunately, they are Christians, and this caste system creates lots of problems.” The Muslim-Christian animosity predates the British occupation of Pakistan, stemming from a Hinduism-instilled social hierarchy that demoted the Christians to the most menial and despised rank.
Rimsha was acquitted and released from a prison in Rawalpindi on September 8, from where she was flown in a military helicopter to meet her family in an undisclosed location. Rimsha’s neighbors told ABC News reporters they do not believe she and her family will ever return to her village.
Implications for the future
Despite the exonerating evidence, Rimsha’s acquittal is a miracle in a country where those convicted of defiling the Quran face life in prison. The family is living in protective custody, in constant fear of assassination by vigilantes and Islamic hardliners who side with the tunnel-vision judiciary.
Critics of the blasphemy law, however, nurture a cautious hope that the court’s decision bodes a revision of the laws, as the case has highlighted how the stringency of the laws can invite people to misuse them for their own advantage. “The decision by a Pakistan court to grant bail to Rimsha Masih is an encouraging step, but the Pakistan government must urgently reform its blasphemy laws to prevent similar cases in future,” said a spokesman from Amnesty International. “In the recent past individuals accused of blasphemy have been killed by members of the public, often in incidents where the victim has not been formally charged by the authorities,” he continued. He then went on to stress the importance of “legal, policy and social reforms” to address “vilification on the basis of religion that has lead to almost daily intimidation and deadly attacks.”
Dr. Nazir S. Bhatti, President of Pakistan Christian Congress (PCC) has demanded reinvestigation in all cases lodged against Christians, Ahmaddiya and Muslims under charges of blasphemy.