By staff writer
ISLAMABAD- A Pakistani Christian girl detained on accusations of defaming Islam was too frightened to speak in a prison where she is being held in solitary confinement for her safety, an activist who said he visited her said on Thursday. The 11-year-old girl allegedly suffering from Down’s syndrome was arrested in Pakistan for burning pages of the Noorani Qaeda, an Islamic religious text, according to Pakistan’s Daily Times and the BBC. The trouble began when the Christian girl, who has been identified as Rifta Masih, was seen playing outside her house and allegedly burning pages of the holy book in Mehrabadi village, close to Islamabad.
According to another newspaper, she was then beaten by locals, while her family fled the area to avoid reprisals. (The police deny that she was beaten, but admit she suffers from Down’s syndrome).
The girl and her mother were jailed. The Asian Human Rights Commission claims the girl’s mother and sister both remain missing, though this information isn’t reported in other news sources. Although police were reluctant to charge someone so young, the locals surrounded the police station and pressured them into registering the case and formally arresting Masih on Thursday.
Pakistan’s Adviser to the Prime Minister on Minorities Affairs Paul Bhatti is attempting to help the girl and her family with legal assistance, and has talked to religious scholars, who will attempt after Eid to determine if the girl’s act was deliberate.
Pakistan’s Daily Times reports “at least 2,300” Christians have been forced to flee and go into hiding due to the incident. It highlights the highly charged nature of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, under which anyone found guilty of insulting Islam’s Prophet or the Qur’an can be sentenced to death. Convictions are common, although the death sentence has never been carried out. Most convictions are thrown out on appeal, but mobs have killed many people accused of blasphemy.
Religious and secular groups worldwide have protested over the arrest last week of Rimsha Masih, accused by Muslim neighbours of burning Islamic religious texts. Christian activist Xavier William said he visited Masih at a police station where she was first held, and then this week in a prison in the city of Rawalpindi, near the capital Islamabad. “She was frightened and traumatized,” William said.
“She was assaulted and in very bad shape. She had bruises on her face and on her hands,” he added, referring to a mob that attacked Masih in her village on the edge of Islamabad after she was accused of blasphemy.
Masih’s arrest triggered an exodus of several hundred Christians from her poverty-stricken village after local mosques reported over their loudspeakers what the girl was alleged to have done. Emotions were running high there.
Christians, who make up 4 per cent of Pakistan’s population of 180 million, have been especially concerned about the blasphemy law, saying it offers them no protection.
In 2009, 40 houses and a church were set ablaze by a mob of 1,000 Muslims in the town of Gojra, Punjab. At least seven Christians were burned to death. The attacks were triggered by reports of the desecration of the Koran.
Two Christian brothers accused of writing a blasphemous letter against the Prophet Mohammad were gunned down outside a court in the eastern city of Faisalabad in July of 2010.
President Asif Ali Zardari has told officials to produce a report on the girl’s arrest, which has brought protests from Amnesty International, British-based Christian group Barnabas Fund, and others.
Masih is due to appear in court in the next 10 days. She could be formally charged with blasphemy. “She is in solitary confinement at Adiala jail because of her safety,” said William. “She would not make eye contact. She did not say anything. She did not answer back.”
In an earlier case last year, in the Pakistani village of Havelian, a Christian Grade 8 student named Faryal Bhatti was accused of blasphemy after making a spelling mistake on a test, a miscue that has had drastic and life-changing consequences for her whole family. School authorities said Bhatti recently misspelled a word in Urdu in a poem written to celebrate the Prophet Muhammad. Instead of the word “Naat,” which meant a poem of praise, Bhatti misplaced a letter with a dot and instead wrote the word “Laanat,” which means curse.
Bhatti’s teacher reportedly beat her in front of her class and then referred the case to the school’s principal. Bhatti was expelled. Local government administrators agreed to have Bhatti’s mother transferred from her government job as a nurse and the family evicted from their home in a cantonment area populated by public servants.