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Pakistani Christians live in fear after girl's blasphemy arrest

ISLAMABAD -- Margrett Ghafoor, a Christian teacher in majority-Muslim Pakistan, says her lesson for the children she teaches has always been the same.

"My message is for everyone to broaden their minds, and ignore petty matters," says the 53-year-old mother of two. "Let's live together in peace."

Ghafoor has always felt free and safe when attending church services and practicing her religion, despite living in a country where at least 95 percent of the population is Muslim.

But her Christian community in Rawalpindi -- a sprawling suburb of the capital city of Islamabad -- has been anything but peaceful since the Aug. 16 arrest of a young Christian girl named Rimsha Masih.

Rimsha was jailed under the country's strict blasphemy laws for allegedly burning pages from a book containing Muslim scripture. She is currently in police custody, being examined by medical and psychological professionals.

There have been conflicting reports on Rimsha’s age and her mental state. Some media have said she suffers from Down syndrome and is aged 11. Her lawyer Masih's lawyer, Tahir Naveed Chaudhry, reportedly said Tuesday that a medical board had determined she was between 13 and 14 and that her mental state did not correspond with her age. However, he said that it was “not clear whether that meant she was mentally impaired.”

Fears for children's future
Ghafoor, one of 6,000 Christians living in this neighborhood, said the case has sent ripples of tension and insecurity through her community. She is now concerned about what her 13-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son may face in a divided community pushed further apart by the case.

"I am worried about the future of my children if this situation persists," Ghafoor. "And I am very worried even if she [Rimsha] is released, she is not safe here."

Following Rimsha's arrest, news of her alleged crime spread rapidly through the local Muslim community.

Pakistani girl reportedly arrested for blasphemy

People enraged by the accusations gathered at the police station, demanding the girl be turned over to them, so she could be burned alive.

Islamabad Police Inspector-General Bani Amin said officials were "concerned about her safety," after "800 people gathered to block the road."

He said Rimsha has been kept in "protective custody, for her own safety."

There is precedent in Pakistan for the sort of extrajudicial killing Rimsha appears to have narrowly escaped.

In June of this year, a man in Bahawalpur, in Punjab province, was accused of burning a copy of the Quran.

He was arrested and held by police, but thousands of angry people attacked the police station, overwhelming local authorities. The mob reportedly dragged the man to the spot where the alleged crime occurred, beat him, and killed him by setting him on fire.

Pakistan's colonial-era blasphemy laws forbid damaging or defiling a place of worship, defiling the Quran, or defaming the prophet Muhammad; the charges carry a possible death sentence.

Christian activist Xavier William, president of Life for All-Pakistan, has met with Rimsha and is in touch with her family and local authorities.

He described the girl as an "unable to communicate," and "in a state of shock," when they first met immediately after her arrest.

"Keeping in mind her mental state, and the fact that she's a minor, I am more concerned about her health right now and her safety," William said. "Because if she gets released then again there will be a threat to her life."

Solitary confinement
Last year, William's organization carried out a study across 13 jails in Punjab province, interviewing 93 prisoners accused of blasphemy. The report found that the majority are kept in solitary confinement "for their own protection, due to the very real threat to their lives from other inmates and prison guards."

The report concluded that no one accused and convicted of blasphemy had ever been executed under Pakistani law, but added that "hundreds of Christians who have been charged with blasphemy have died, many in suspicious circumstances in jails and at the hands of extremist armed attackers."

Christian woman faces death for insulting Islam

More disturbingly, the study found that the blasphemy laws were often used to settle personal scores. The mere accusation produces such a fierce reaction that an accused person stands little chance of being cleared.

"The use of the blasphemy law has become a quick way of resolving disputes arising from business rivalry, honor disputes, disputes over money and property," the report said.

The majority of those accused of blasphemy in Pakistan are actually Muslims who belong to various Muslim sects.

In one case featured in the report, an 85-year old Muslim man in Faisalabad named Haq Nawaz claimed he was falsely implicated in a blasphemy case by a Muslim neighbor to whom he refused to hand over a government-allocated plot of land. Nawaz was accused in January of 2011, and remains in jail awaiting court proceedings.

In another case, a 54-year-old Muslim resident of Jhelum named Muhammad Ashraf claimed he was accused of blasphemy after demanding a cousin repay money he borrowed to build his home. The cousin, he said, was unable to pay and "a scuffle ensued." Ashraf found himself jailed on blasphemy charges in September 2010. He was sentenced to death in March 2011, and his appeal is pending.

William said that while the reaction to blasphemy accusations -- as seen in Rimsha's community -- has become "routine" in recent months, this wasn't always the case.

"If you look at the cases two or three years back, we didn't see such reactions," William said. "Now we see society is becoming more and more intolerant, and such incidents are increasing at an alarming rate. There is an extreme mindset, and the intolerance is increasing. People are not open to talk about it."

Despite this and the flurry of international headlines about Rimsha's case, Pakistan's leaders stop short of calling for reform.

President takes 'notice'
President Asif Ali Zardari took "notice" of her case last week, requesting an official investigation and report. A joint group of Muslim and Christian clerics announced on Monday they had formed a committee to investigate her case.

Pakistan's leading cleric also called Monday for the Supreme Court to take up Rimsha's case, noting that the "blasphemy law is not wrong, its application and implementation are wrong."

Those in Pakistan who have publicly spoken out about the need to reform the blasphemy laws have faced harassment, threats, and death.

Former Punjab Governor Salman Taseer spoke often about his vision for a "progressive" and "liberal" Pakistan.

He took up the case of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman accused under the blasphemy laws of allegedly insulting Muhammad. He was gunned down by one of his own bodyguards in the parking lot of an upscale shopping area in January 2011. The man who shot him claimed he did so because Taseer was a "blasphemer."

Pakistani gets death for liberal governor's murder

After Taseer's death, Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti -- the only Christian Cabinet member -- publicly vowed to continue his efforts to reform the blasphemy law despite receiving death threats.

In March 2011, as he was traveling through a residential area in Islamabad, gunmen ambushed his car in broad daylight, killing Bhatti in a hail of gunfire.

Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United States Sherry Rehman said it was important for Pakistan's leaders to continue to speak up, to "protect people vulnerable to the misuse of such laws, and continue to seek to amend them."

Rehman, a former member of parliament, has received numerous death threats after introducing legislation to reform the blasphemy laws in 2010. Religious groups have also called for her dismissal and some Muslim leaders issued fatwas against her.

'Fit to be killed'
A conservative cleric vilified her as an "infidel," a "blasphemer," and claimed she was "fit to be killed."

Rehman was forced to abandon her efforts at reform when government leaders gave in to conservative pressure, but she maintains that Pakistan's leaders must continue to speak out for all their citizens and for the sake of the country's future.

"Extremist advances, the security challenge, the [former president] Zia [ul Haq] years' toxic legacy has led to a climate where even speaking about such laws is seen as a challenge to reactionary forces," Rehman said. "But we have to protect our minorities, and rebuild an inclusive Pakistan. We don't have a choice."

Back in the Islamabad area’s Christian community, people are in disbelief at the treatment of Rimsha.

They expressed concern for their own security and hers, regardless of how her case turns out.

Naveed Bhatti, a 26-year-old teacher, condemned the "brutality" of the way Rimsha had been dealt with.

"The message of Jesus is peace and fraternity. It does not impart on us to desecrate the Quran," Bhatti said. "When I preach anything about the Bible now, I'm worried my family will be insecure and face allegations of blasphemy."

Justin Javed Bachan, who also serves as General Secretary with the Pakistan Christian Action Committee, said the community was deeply concerned for Rimsha's safety.

"Even if she is released, anything can happen to her," he says. "Her survival in Pakistan seems very difficult."

Bachan, a married banker and father of two, said he and others feel "depressed" because of their vulnerability.

"Any time, blasphemy law can be imposed on us," Bachan said. "I have met with the Christian community in Rawalpindi and Islamabad. They are all worried because they can fall victim to it at any time."

Farah Masih, 20, a manager for a non-governmental organization, echoed that concern, saying she could just as easily, "be another Rimsha."

Margrett Ghafoor's teenage daughter, Alina, is around the same age as Rimsha. She attends school nearby, with both Christian and Muslims students. She said she had never had a problem with her Muslim school friends and expressed the hope that she never does.

"I treat them as Christians, and they treat me as Muslims," she said, repeating lessons learned from her mother. "We should all stay together."

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