By Kamran Chaudry
A minority rights activist said Wednesday there was growing support for the release of a young Christian girl arrested last week on charges of blasphemy and that he would seek approval to represent her in court.
“Support from government officials is overwhelmingly strong. Top clerics in the country are condemning the injustice [of the girl’s arrest],” said Tahir Naveed Chaudhry, a central executive committee member of the All Pakistan Minority Alliance (APMA), a national coalition of minority rights groups.
“We were hoping for her release but the [Eid ul-Fitr] holidays delayed it,” he said.
Rimsha Masih, variously reported to be between the age of 10 and 16, was confronted by a group of Muslims at her home in Sector G-11, a Christian slum in Islamabad, on the night of August 16 after witnesses said she was found with burned pages of a religious textbook that contained verses from the Qur’an.
The girl and her mother were brought to a local police station and detained before Masih, who the APMA says is 11 years old and suffers from Down’s syndrome, was transferred to Adiyala jail in Rawalpindi.
The family has since gone into hiding, Chaudhry said.
Chaudhry, who is also a member of the provincial assembly and an attorney, said he plans to visit Masih on Thursday along with a group of Catholic priests, during which he would seek her power of attorney to plead her case in court.
Since the arrest, the APMA has contacted local clerics to urge restraint among the Muslim community, Chaudhry said.
“We asked them to stop anyone from promoting hate against Christians during Friday sermons. We have planned meetings with grassroots clerics and will interact closely with them so that we win their support in case of future incidents,” he said.
However the arrest and subsequent furor among some local Muslims sent hundreds of Christians fleeing from their homes in the G-11 slum for fear of reprisal.
Chaudhry said about 25 families had taken refuge in a local Church, while six hundred other Christians left to stay with relatives.
Nathaniel Allarakha, a house painter from Mehr village in the capital, said he and others had fled the G-11 slum on the night of the arrest after calls by a local mosque to prevent Christians from leaving the area.
“It was 11 at night when announcements were made on the mosque loudspeakers urging Muslims to wake up and prevent Christians from escaping,” Allarakha said.
“Children were crying. We stuffed our families into vehicles without salvaging anything. I have been wearing the same shirt for six days.”
Allarakha is among an estimated hundreds of other Christians who fled to a slum in Sector F 7-2 and who have been receiving food aid from the APMA, said Nida Nazir, district president of the group’s women’s wing.
“We started with 318 people. The number increased earlier in the week but has gradually dropped,” Nazir said.
However, hopes for a peaceful resolution to the case and the easing of religious tensions surrounding it remain questionable.
Allarakha said he and others who fled have received phone calls from a Muslim community leader in Sector G-11 urging Christians to return to retrieve their belongings and leave the community for good, promising that no one would be harmed.
Meanwhile, local media reported this week that police in Islamabad have filed cases against 175 Muslims for illegal assembly in the days following Masih’s arrest.