Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Fearful Pakistani Christians make home in forest

Having fled their homes in the latest spasm of Pakistani religious strife, a few hundred Christians have camped in a forest in the Pakistani capital, cut down trees and are using the branches to build a church. Their ordeal began when a Christian girl in their poor Islamabad neighborhood was accused by a neighbor of burning pages of the Quran — a blasphemy by Pakistani law that can mean life in prison.

A week after the girl's arrest, much remains in question: her age — 11 to 16 in conflicting reports; mental condition —  Down syndrome has been mentioned; and what exactly she was burning — there's little evidence that Quran pages were involved.

But as word spread, hundreds of people gathered outside her house demanding action, and on Aug. 20 police arrested the girl pending an investigation. (The Associated Press is withholding her name because it does not generally identify underage suspects.)

Most Christians in the neighborhood fled — some 600 families according to one interfaith group. Some said their landlords evicted them. A few have returned.

One of those who moved into the forest on Sunday was Sumera Zahid, who was busy feeding her three children and her parents.

"We used to come here to collect wood for fuel so we find it a suitable place for shelter," she said. "Here it is not anybody's home, nobody's land. Let us live here in safety."

On Monday their pastor, Arif Masih, spoke to them by the frame of branches they were lashing together for their church.

"We are thankful to the Lord for this land although here is no water and food, but rest assured the Lord will create water fountains and provide all fruits here for you if you remain patient and suffer these hardships, thanking the Lord," he said.

Blasphemy is an extremely sensitive issue in this 95-percent Muslim nation of 190 million people, and cases often grab huge attention here and abroad.

Crowds have been known to beat or kill suspected blasphemers. Last year two prominent politicians who criticized the blasphemy law were murdered, one by his own bodyguard who then attracted adoring mobs. In July, thousands of people dragged a Pakistani man accused of desecrating the Quran from a police station, beat him to death and set his body alight.

So volatile is the issue that public figures appear loath to speak out on the latest episode. The government has made little substantive comment, and no police protection was evident at the forest encampment.

On Monday the All Pakistan Ulema Council, an umbrella organization of Muslim clerics, held a news conference together with the Pakistan Interfaith League, the group that reports 600 families have fled and is campaigning to return them to their homes.

The two groups called for an investigation into whether the girl was wrongly accused and what role religious extremism played. League chairman Sajid Ishaq demanded government compensation for the displaced Christians, as well as protection.

Critics say the blasphemy laws are often used in vendettas and score-settling. Sensitivities are also heightened by Western reactions to such incidents, such as the U.S. State Department statement calling the latest case "deeply disturbing."

At the news conference, the head of the clerics' council, Maulana Tahir-ul-Ashrafi, told the outside world not to interfere, saying Pakistan would provide justice for the girl and her community.

Meanwhile, Nooran Bashir, who had fled a few hours after the girl's arrest, was back in her home Monday.

"I don't know whether she burned pages of some holy book or not, but we all had to abruptly leave our homes to save our lives," she said. She said one of her sons came back with her, but her other children were too frightened and she sent them to relatives.

She said Muslims asked the Christians not to worship in their church, and if they did, to refrain from singing.

But others were not ready to return. About 200 Christians, mostly men, protested in front of the city administration offices Monday, demanding permission to stay in the clearing. About another 100 people, mostly women and children, were back at the clearing.

"We don't have a big list of demands," said one Christian resident, Salim Masih. "We have cleared this place with our hands, and we have laid the first foundation of a small church here. Although this is a mere skeleton made of tree branches, this is the holy home of God. This should be respected."

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Iman Sheikh: Pakistan’s anti-Christian witch hunt

Rifta Masih is an 11-year-old Christian girl who lives near Islamabad, Pakistan. She reportedly suffers from Down’s Syndrome. Like many of the other Christians in her area — who comprise about 10% of the local population — the members of her family work menial jobs, and live in tiny properties rented from Muslim landlords.
On Thursday evening, Rifta was seen leaving the one-room dwelling she lives in with her sister and parents, carrying an earthenware dish filled with ash. Or, it may have been some refuse in a small shopping bag. Although Hammad Malik, a 23-year-old witness, is unclear on exactly what the girl was transporting, he is quite certain that the burnt remains had Arabic writing on them.
Rifta, he alleges, was burning pages from a Koran inside her house, and then trying to find a place to dispose of the remains. Although he did not see her do this, that did not stop him from assembling an angry group of men and reporting the incident to the local police, with the demand that the girl be apprehended in accordance with the country’s Blasphemy Law. The authorities at first did not act, but then moved swiftly to get the girl into custody when a mob of over 500 people gathered at the Masih home’s doorstep. Fearing for her safety, the authorities put her into a cell for a two-week detention.
Welcome to Pakistan: A nightmare society beyond pity or parody, where handicapped 11-year-old girls must be locked up to ensure their own safety.
According to the Blasphemy Law, anyone found guilty of insulting the Prophet Muhammad or the Koran can be sentenced to death. With blind religious extremism on the upswing, there is no shortage of Hammad Malik types — self-appointed religious vigilantes on the lookout for any transgression, real or imagined.
The law has been enforced in regard to even the most dubious reports of “blasphemy,” and has led to the murder of two prominent politicians. In January 2011, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was shot by his own bodyguard after he expressed sympathy for Asia Noreen, a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy. Scarcely two months later, Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s first Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs and the only Christian in Pakistan’s Cabinet, was leaving his mother’s home in Islamabad when his car was sprayed with bullets. (The Pakistani Taliban has claimed responsibility for the killing.)
The aforementioned Noreen, better known in the media as “Asia Bibi,” was a farmhand who fetched water for her coworkers. When some Muslims refused to drink the water on account of it being contaminated by an “unclean” Christian, heated work-site arguments allegedly ensued. Later, a cleric received complaints that Noreen made derogatory comments about the Prophet Muhammad. A mob arrived at her house, attacking her and her family before she was rescued by the police. This was in June 2009. She is still in jail.
The Blasphemy Law can be manipulated by cynical plaintiffs, as a tool to take personal retribution. In the case of Asia Bibi, there had been a pre-existing feud between Noreen and a Muslim neighbour over property damage. In Rifta’s case, relations between the Muslim and Christian communities had been tense for months after complaints were made about the noise coming from churches in the area during religious services.
In Pakistan, Christians traditionally have worked as cleaners and sweepers; many Muslims still consider them “unclean.” About 900 Christians living on the outskirts of Islamabad have been ordered to leave the neighbourhood and the homes they have inhabited for two decades. On Sunday, houses on the backstreets of Mehrabadi, an area 20 minutes drive from Islamabad’s western embassies and government ministries, were locked up and abandoned, their frightened occupants having relocated to already overcrowded Christian slums in and around the capital.
Pakistan is a country with many problems — from corruption to terrorism to regional secession movements. But none captures the primitive, bigoted spirit of the nation’s religious extremists more perfectly than the witch hunt for “blasphemers” that has been used to persecute the country’s tiny, beleaguered Christian community. If an 11-year-old handicapped girl is considered fair game for the fanatics, what chance does anyone else have?