Pakistanis unite to save girl accused of blasphemy

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Religious, government and NGO leaders have launched a joint effort to save a Christian girl with Down syndrome who has been accused of blasphemy.

Paul Bhatti, a Catholic who is advisor to the Prime Minister, told Fides news agency that the incident has resulted in “the commitment of institutions and religious leaders for her release.”

The girl, named Rimsha Masih, is being kept in an isolated prison cell. She is experiencing emotional and psychological stress without her family present.

Bhatti said the girl’s defenders are “confident” and have worked with Muslim leaders who have refused to “incite the assault of Christians.”

Masih’s neighbors claim they saw the girl burning pages of the Quran outside her home in Rawalpindi, a city near the national capital of Islamabad. She could face the death penalty under the country’s strict anti-blasphemy law if she is convicted.

Some reports describe the Protestant Christian girl as a teenager, while others say she could be as young as 11 years-old.

Defenders of the girl say the charges against her are invented.

Tahir Naveed Chaudhry, a central executive committee member of the All Pakistan Minority Alliance, told UCA News that support for Masih’s case from government officials is “overwhelmingly strong” and the country’s top clerics are condemning the ‘injustice” of the girl’s arrest.

The minority alliance has asked local clerics to urge restraint among the Muslim community.

The allegations against the girl caused outrage among some local Muslims, causing Christians to flee their homes out of fear. About 25 families took refuge in a local church and 600 individuals left to stay with relatives.

The latest incident could be part of a trend.

Fr. James Channan, O.P., the director of a peace center in Lahore, has said that news of violence against Christian children is “continually increasing.”

“If children are attacked, it means that a limit of intolerable abuse and inhumanity has been reached,” he told Fides.

He said the use of the country’s “unjust and ambiguous” blasphemy law “continues to be a tool to persecute Christians, Hindus, but also Muslims.”

Christians have repeatedly asked the government to repeal or modify the law.

Punjab governor Salman Tasseer, a major opponent of the blasphemy law, was assassinated in January 2011. His killer said his actions were motivated by the governor’s opposition to the law.

Another vocal critic of the law, Shahbaz Bhatti, was assassinated in March 2011. He was Pakistan’s first Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs and the only Catholic Christian in the federal cabinet. His brother Paul returned to Pakistan to continue his work for religious coexistence.

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