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The latest human rights outrage in Pakistan, a country that produces so many of them, concerns the recent arrest in Islamabad of an 11-year-old Christian girl, Rimsha Masih, who reportedly has Down’s Syndrome. Masih is accused of having violated Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy law, which carries the death penalty. The girl, according to the New York Times, had allegedly burned pages of a “religious textbook used to teach the Koran to children” and was imprisoned with her mother for this unproven allegation. The usual Muslim mob then gathered outside the jail she was in, demanding that Masih be charged, while her Christian neighbors fled their homes, fearing attacks by those same mobs.
The whole farcical incident started when Masih’s landlord’s nephew apparently saw her carrying the offending pages that contained verses from the Koran. She intended to use the paper for cooking. The nephew then informed one of those tolerant, compassionate Muslim Pakistani clerics the world is now accustomed to reading about who then incited people to take action. The nephew’s uncle said few people cared about the matter until the cleric got involved, which is reminiscent of the Danish cartoon affair that was instigated by a Danish imam who flew to the Middle East to inflame passions there.
“He (the cleric) tried to shame people by saying, ‘What good are your prayers if the Koran is being burnt,” the uncle said.
The uncle also stated he was the one responsible for having the girl imprisoned, but for her own safety. Even in prison, however, Masih may not be secure, since others who have run afoul of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws in the past have been killed while behind bars by frenzied religious mobs storming the jails. Only last month, a rabble seized a mentally unstable man accused of blasphemy from a police station and burned him alive.
If Masih was in possession of the burnt pages, it may have occurred during the course of her duties as a street sweeper, a job usually performed by poor Christians in Pakistan. Whatever the facts are, “senior leaders agreed…the accusations…were baseless” and the case “would ultimately be dropped.” This admission, however, has not stopped foreign governments from wading into the affair. The French government has called on “Pakistani authorities to free this young girl,” while the US State Department has called the arrest “deeply disturbing.”
Such foreign pressure may not have been in vain and may have helped goad Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari into action. Possibly embarrassed by Western criticism, Zardari has called for a report about the affair from the interior ministry. Western nations have always harshly condemned Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which are often used simply as a tool of personal revenge or to persecute religious minorities who compromise about 5 percent of the country’s 160 million people. But even if foreign pressure does help get Masih released, she probably will never be able to return home due to waiting religious fanatics.
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