The ongoing drama surrounding the 11-year-old with Down’s Syndrome, Rimsha Masih, took an unexpected turn recently when Imam Khalid Chishti was arrested and charged with framing the Christian girl in the controversial blasphemy case. The charges were filed after witnesses came forward and told police that Chishti placed the torn and burned pages from the Islamic Holy Book in the youngster’s bag.
Rimsha’s ordeal began on August 16, 2012 in the rural village of Mehrabadi near Islamabad, Pakistan. The impoverished 11-year-old girl was playing near her family’s home, when a rumor began to circulate that girl was burning pages containing quotations from the Qur’an. Rimsha, and her mother who was trying to protect her, were severely beaten and dragged to the police station where Rimsha was charged with blasphemy and insulting Islam.
After Rimsha was arrested, there were repeated calls for her immediate execution.
“It is inconceivable that human beings could treat a little girl, let alone one with Down syndrome, in such a brutal manner,” said Faith J.H. McDonnell, of the Washington-based Institute for Religion and Democracy. “The mob was intent on killing Rimsha and other Christians in the community, unless she was turned over to the authorities and put in prison.”
The blasphemy laws in Pakistan have often been used to settle personal arguments or to persecute non-Muslims. Persons convicted of blasphemy face either the death penalty or life in prison, which is at the discretion of the judge and, to a great extent, depends on the defendant’s religion.
In the days following Rimsha’s arrest, hundreds of Christian villagers from her home town were forced to flee after local Muslims made threats to burn the village to the ground. Although negotiations were able to prevent an attack on the village, many of the residents remain fearful for their lives and property.
It has been alleged that Khalid Chishti framed Rimsha due to his animosity against “Christian Infidels.” A member of the Imam’s own Mosque told authorities that Rimsha was framed as part of a larger plan to force the 800 Christians to leave their village permanently.
Since his arrest, Chishti’s supporters have proclaimed his innocence. Mobs are gathering to demand that Rimsha be executed for blasphemy, and calls have gone out to collectively punish her entire village.
“Pour petrol and burn these Christians,” local Iqbal Bibi told Reuters.“The cleric of the mosque has been oppressed. He is not at fault. He is innocent.”
While the Imam sits behind bars, Rimsha also remains in custody with no current plans for her release. Local aid workers have been threatened and intimidated when they tried to visit the 11-year-old, and it appears that her hearing is still set for the end of the month at the earliest.
The youngster’s arrest has raised an uproar in the international community, which may explain why the Pakistani Government has taken the absolutely unprecedented step of arresting an Islamic Cleric in this highly charged case. This is the first time since the infamous Section 295 B became part of Pakistan’s Constitution in the 1990s that an Islamic leader has been accused of filing false blasphemy charges. Several prominent Pakistani politicians including Salman Taseer (the former governor of Punjab) and Shahbaz Bhatti (the Federal Minister for Minorities) were assassinated for opposing the blasphemy laws.
The Human Rights Council and the World Council of Churches have been at the forefront in protesting the case of Rimsha Masih. The WCC plans to hold a meeting of its 349 Protestant and Orthodox Church groups in Geneva this month where the case of Rimsha, and Pakistan’s oppressive blasphemy laws, will be the main topic of discussion.
“This is just the latest in a series of similar incidents going back many years. Some cases are reported, but many go unreported,” said Mathews George Chunakara, who heads the WCC’s commission on international affairs.
Among the prominent human rights leaders who spoke out on the case was Roy Brown, chief representative to the United Nations for the International Humanist and Ethical Union, who said in a statement obtained by Fox News:
“This latest affair just highlights the total hypocrisy of Pakistan, and its supporters, in the Human Rights Council.”
It is simply too early to tell if the Pakistani Government is serious about charging Imam Chishti for framing Risha or if his arrest is merely a show to diffuse international pressure and silence critics of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Meanwhile, Rimsha still sits in prison with her fate unknown. Her family, friends, and neighbors are facing threats of violence at the hands of extremists while their lives have been turned into a waking nightmare. We can only hope that the pressure will continue and Pakistan will finally take steps to end the constant persecution of the country’s religious minorities. Rimsha Masih must be set free immediately and permitted to reunite with her family.