The case of Rimsha Masih, a 14-year-old Christian girl with Down syndrome charged under Pakistan's blasphemy laws, may lead to changes in the strict legislation, according to a local priest.
While “they would never agree to a complete annulment of the law,” Father Emmanuel Yousaf told Aid to the Church in Need, Pakistani media do “say that something must be done about its abuses.”
Fr. Yousaf is president of the National Commission of Justice and Peace, an organization of the Pakistani bishops which assists religious minorities persecuted in the country.
Masih was arrested Aug. 16, accused of burning pages of the Quran. She has been granted bail and has gone into hiding with her family while she awaits trial.
On Sept. 2 an imam from Masih's neighborhood, Khalid Chishti, was arrested for allegedly planting pages of the Quran among burnt pages in a bag she was carrying.
Chisti allegedly said to his companions, “You know this is the only way to expel the Christians from this area.” Several persons, including his own deputy, have testified to his action of planting the Quran pages in Masih's bag.
Christian families from Masih's neighborhood have fled, fearing mob violence against them.
The high-profile case has garnered international attention, and has sparked discussion of the blasphemy laws and human rights even among Muslim clerics in Pakistan.
A Sept. 4 editorial in the Pakistan Express Tribune denounced the treatment of Masih and called for her release. It criticized the blasphemy law, saying that both the police and the judiciary in Pakistan take the side of the accuser in blasphemy cases to try to defuse the situation. The editorial said that no false accusers have been convicted for their false reports.
“I met Rimsha’s parents and I visited the place where the events occurred,” Fr. Yousaf told Aid to the Church in Need on Sept. 28. “Five hundred Christian families live in the girl’s neighborhood. The false accusations of blasphemy are intended to drive them out of there.”
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are often used to settle personal scores or to persecute minorities. Christians make up less than two percent of the country’s population, which is at least 95 percent Muslim.
Religious minorities make up at most 5 percent of Pakistan's population, yet only 50 percent of persons accused under the blasphemy laws are Muslim.
“Religious minorities are totally vulnerable and unable to defend themselves,” said Fr. Yousaf.
Even if those accused under the country’s harsh blasphemy laws are acquitted in court, it can be difficult for authorities to prevent the killing of those who are accused.
In 2011, two Pakistani politicians – Salmaan Taseer, a Muslim, and Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic – were assassinated for opposing the blasphemy laws under which Masih is being held.
In Jan. 2011, shortly after the assassination of Taseer, Pope Benedict appealed to Pakistan to repeal the law. The next day the prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, stated, “We are not going to amend them,” and that “anyone who says there will be changes is lying.”
Since 2001 at least 50 Christians have been killed in mob violence after being accused of blasphemy, before their cases could even reach the courts.
“Many of the accused who belong to religious minorities have already been killed without the chance of a court hearing,” Fr. Yousaf lamented.