Photo credit: Agence France Presse
BY AIDAN CLAY
A LOOK AT PAKISTAN'S MURDEROUS BLASPHEMY LAWS
Crouching in a corner of a dark cell in a high-security prison in Rawalpindi, Pakistan sat Rimsha Masih, a Christian girl with mental disabilities. “She was weeping and crying and full of fear,” the little girl’s lawyer said after visiting her. “She can’t even judge right and wrong because she’s a minor and she’s illiterate.”
Rimsha, determined to be 14 years old by a medical review (though relatives say she is only 11) had broken no laws to deserve imprisonment. She was not a murderer or a thief, as were the fellow inmates jailed next to her. Rimsha was, however, a Christian. Enraged mobs and local authorities needed no other reason to throw her behind bars.
In mid-August, Rimsha, a daughter of street sweepers, was performing her routine household chore—compiling rubbish and taking it to the dumpster. But on this day her menial task would prove difficult, not because of any fault of her own, but because her neighbors had plotted against her.
Muhammad Hammad yelled at Rimsha as she walked by, pointing at the heap of trash in her hands. Among the waste were burnt pages of the Quran, he claimed. The accusations were all that was needed to ignite a fury of public anger toward Rimsha and her Christian neighbors.
Rumors spread like wildfire through the neighborhood. It wasn’t long before police came to Rimsha’s door with a warrant for her arrest on charges of blasphemy. Muslim neighbors, angered by rumors that the Quran had been desecrated, converged into mobs and wreaked havoc on the streets the next day. “The one who burned the Quran should be burned,” said Shaukhat Ali, an assistant at the local mosque. Several Christian homes were set ablaze and Rimsha’s mom and sister were physically assaulted. Hundreds of Christians immediately fled the violence, fearing for their lives.
CAMPAIGN AGAINST CHRISTIANS
“More than 250 Christian families moved to safer places after the allegation,” Shalom Basharat, a human rights activist in Islamabad, told ICC. “The mob encompassed the Christians’ houses and demanded that the ‘blasphemer’ be hanged. The angry mob abused Rimsha’s parents and other Christians. They blocked the main highway for hours and chanted slogans against Rimsha.”
A local Muslim cleric, Hafiz Mohammed Khalid Chishti, incited further animosity while happily watching the chaos unfold. “[It is] time for Muslims to wake up [and protect the Quran],” he told worshippers during Friday prayers. “[Christians] committed this crime to insult us. This happened because we did not stop their anti-Islam activities before.” Chishti ranted on about Christians playing worship music too loudly in “makeshift churches” during “Muslim prayer time.”
All the while, little Rimsha languished in Adiyala jail, unable to understand what she did wrong or why this misfortune had befallen her. “She is suffering from trauma,” Xavier P. William, the Country Director of Masihi Foundation Pakistan, told BBC. “The crowd wanted to burn her alive…. She is an innocent child—she doesn’t even know what she did. She is in a state of shock.”
Chishti was ecstatic. He had finally accomplished his longtime goal by successfully driving the Christians out of his neighborhood. His victory, however, was short lived. On September 1, a member of Chishti’s own mosque testified in court against him, saying that Chishti had framed Rimsha by planting the burned pages of the Quran in her possession to persuade local Muslims to rid the area of Christians. Chishti, in turn, was arrested and charged in accordance with the same laws that Rimsha had allegedly violated—blaspheming Islam by desecrating the Muslim holy book.
A week later, following Chishti’s unexpected arrest, a judge granted Rimsha’s release on bail. On September 8, Rimsha was flown by helicopter to a secure location to be reunited with her family.
RELEASED, BUT NOT FREE
Rimsha’s release was a cause for celebration for concerned Christians around the world. Despite her freedom, however, justice was far from being served. Rimsha’s arrest had been baseless and served no other purpose but to affirm that Pakistan’s troublesome blasphemy laws imprison and even execute innocent minorities on nothing more than false accusations. As a result, Rimsha’s life will never again be the same. Any hope she had of returning to the home of her childhood had been lost forever.
“Once you have been accused of blasphemy it means the relocation of your family even if you are acquitted by the court,” the director of a Pakistan human rights organization in Lahore told ICC. “The people who were willing to burn Rimsha alive are now even angrier that their imam was arrested.... There is no way she can go back to her home.”
THE THREAT OF ACCUSATION
Rimsha was merely one of hundreds of Christians and other religious minorities who—to this day—languish in Pakistani jails on false allegations of blasphemy. Among those imprisoned is Asia Bibi, a Christian mother who is currently awaiting her execution. Bibi was sentenced to death by hanging by a Pakistani court in November 2010 for allegedly insulting Mohammad. Two of her closest advocates, Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab, and Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s sole Christian cabinet minister and a close friend of ICC’s, were assassinated for publicly opposing the laws that condemned her.
Once accused of blasphemy, whether innocent or guilty, ‘offenders’ are often worse off when released than they were in jail. According to the advocacy group Human Rights First, 46 people charged for blasphemy in the past 25 years have been killed by mob justice while awaiting trial or after having been acquitted. The Islamabad-based Center for Research and Security Studies showed similar findings, reporting that 52 people have been killed by vigilantes since 1990, after being implicated in blasphemy cases.
In 2009, for example, 40 Christian homes and a church in the town of Gojra were set ablaze by a radical mob following rumors that Christians had desecrated the Quran. At least seven Christians were burned alive. Hence, whether a suspected offender is officially convicted in a Pakistani court or merely accused of blasphemy by a neighbor, the offense may still merit the death sentence in one form or another.
It is no exaggeration to say that blasphemy laws are among the greatest threats against Christianity in Pakistan and throughout the Middle East today. While blasphemy laws claim to seek religious harmony through uniformity, in practice they provide cover for personal vendettas and crush the fundamental freedoms of religious minorities. These laws have further emboldened radical Muslims to commit violent acts against perceived blasphemers and, not surprisingly, the primary targets have been and will continue to be Pakistan’s vulnerable Christian communities.