Islamabad. Pakistan’s capital city, home to over a million people. And now, the centre of an ongoing controversy that has attracted Pakistani and international condemnation alike.
At the time of writing, 14-year-old Rimsha Masih from Pakistan has been arrested, charged and released on bail for a ‘crime’ she may not even have committed. Apart from her young age, her family claim that she has some kind of mental health condition or learning difficulty, possibly Down’s Syndrome, and government doctors have found her metal age to be younger than 14. According to The Guardian, she had to be escorted under high security for her own safety. Her crime? Blasphemy.
On 16th August, Rimsha Masih was arrested after being accused by an angry mob of burning the Koran. She was carrying a plastic bag, which contained, it was alleged, several pages of the Koran she had burnt. After her arrest, hundreds of Christians fled the Islamabad area in fear of their safety.
Sadly, Rimsha Masih’s case is nothing new. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, around 1000 cases have been heard against desecration of the Koran. Those accused, in many cases Christians, are often the victims of local grudges and religious persecution. Though most of the sentences pronounced have been reversed by higher courts, at least 12 Christians have been given death sentences by lower law courts.
But whilst none of these death sentences were carried out, these laws have still lead to death. Minister for Religious Minorities Shabaz Bhatti, the only Christian government minister at the time, was shot dead by two gunmen in 2011. An outspoken critic of the blasphemy laws, Shabaz Bhatti’s killers left a note chillingly calling him “a Christian infidel” and signed it “Taliban al-Quiada Punjab”. Asia Bibi, sentenced to death by hanging in 2010 for blasphemy, is still awaiting her fate. Her husband and two daughters live in constant fear for her life.
The susceptibility of the blasphemy laws to abuse, as such cases show, is reason enough for their abolishment. Yet their existence at all undermines a basic the human right – the right to freedom of religion. Originating in British-governed India, the military government of General Zia-ul Haq “Islamised” the colonial religious laws by adding several clauses, including the anti-Ahmadi laws, which banned the sect from calling themselves Muslim and preaching their faith, and the blasphemy laws, which set out the punishment from blaspheming against the Koran as life imprisonment, and blaspheming against Muhammad as death, or life imprisonment. Surprisingly, it is Muslims who mainly fall foul of the law, who, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, make up the majority of cases.
Yet these unjust laws may be on their way out. Rimsha’s arrest appears to be seen by the people of Pakistan as a step too far. Her release on bail, unusual in such cases, may signal a changing attitude in the Pakistani authorities. Levels of international condemnation are high, with governments, religious groups and human rights organisations fiercely campaigning for the charges to be dropped. Under such pressure, the days of these outdated laws may be numbered.
Rimsha’s story shows other signs of hope. In a stunning turn around, the mullah at the head of the case against Rimsha has been arrested on suspicion of planting the religious texts on the 14 year old. Hafiz Mohammed Khalid Chishti, who told The Guardian after Christians fled their homes, “We are not upset the Christians have left and we will be pleased if they don’t come back,” has now been accused by his own assistants of orchestrating Rimsha’s arrest.
Yet despite these small signs of change, Pakistani Christians and other religious minorities still face an uncertain future. Making up just 2% of the population, Pakistan’s Christians have experienced a long history of persecution. Prominent examples include the 2005 Faisalabad riots, where Christian-Muslim tensions exploded into violence after two Christian brothers were killed for blasphemy, the bombing of churches and Christian homes, and the killings of eight Christians, including four women and a child, during the bloody 2009 Gojra riots.
For Pakistan’s Christians, wounds run deep. It will take time and effort to heal them. Ending these highly abused and outdated laws will be a huge victory, not just for Christians and other religious minorities, but for Muslims too, helping to put an end to a conflict that has only bought prejudice and misery on both sides. But that is for the future. For now, Rimsha’s fate still hangs in the balance. For one small girl, justice will simply be being allowed to go home, to live with her family in peace.