Published: 11:45 GMT Daylight Time - Friday 24 August 2012
Barnabas editorial: Will outrage over detention of Down’s syndrome girl for blasphemy lead to lasting change in Pakistan?
Country/Region: Pakistan, South and East Asia
It is rare for a case of anti-Christian persecution to attract such widespread and sympathetic media coverage and international condemnation. But the severe beating and subsequent arrest of an 11-year-old Christian girl with Down’s syndrome in Pakistan over a flimsy and false blasphemy accusation is so shocking as to outrage even the most disinterested of people.
Both the United States and France have spoken out, calling for the Pakistani authorities to take action. And voices from within Pakistan have also made bold statements.
One of the country’s most high-profile politicians, Imran Khan, described the detention of Rimsha Masih as “shameful”, and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan summed up the sense of utter disbelief that a vulnerable young girl could be so inhumanely treated:
The fact that the girl is a juvenile and suffers from Down’s syndrome only makes the charge more preposterous and barbaric... It is deplorable that the country’s political leadership refrains from speaking out against extremism and the injustices towards non-Muslims.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zadari ordered a report into the matter and called for the protection of the vulnerable, especially those who may suffer from misuse of the blasphemy law. Police have since filed a case against 150 people over violent protests against Rimsha; they were charged with destroying public and private property, damaging cars and blocking roads by burning tyres.
While the statements of condemnation are both fitting and welcome, will they turn out to be just hot air once attention to this particular case has died down? How many Rimsha Masihs, Aasia Bibis, and Aslam Masihs will there need to be before someone in a position of authority has both the courage and the support to effect real change regarding Pakistan’s pernicious “blasphemy laws” and the mistreatment of the country’s Christians?
The blasphemy laws, which prescribe the death penalty for “defiling the name of Muhammad” and life imprisonment for desecrating the Quran, are routinely used against Christians and other non-Muslims. The accused become targets of Muslim citizens, who often respond with threats and violence, even if the person is cleared by the courts. Some have even been killed.
Those who have campaigned for reform have been silenced by extremists in one way or another, most notably Punjab Governor Salman Taseer and Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, who were both assassinated last year over their opposition to the blasphemy laws.
Sustained pressure from both outside and within Pakistan is now required for the government to take the decisive action required.
The international community, especially Western governments, need to work actively to promote change by putting the plight of persecuted Christians and other minorities at the forefront of their relations with Pakistan, until the country demonstrates both its willingness and its ability to uphold human rights.
And Muslim leaders within Pakistan need to show responsible and constructive leadership. Instead of promoting peace and communal harmony, mullahs often incite aggression in their communities over blasphemy allegations. In Rimsha’s case, the accusation against her was broadcast over the loudspeakers of the mosques in the area, provoking local Muslims to beat the young girl and attack other Christians and homes. And in an utterly deplorable act, one Muslim cleric called for the youngster to be publicly burned.
Can you imagine the indignation if a Christian leader in any country expressed such venomous intent towards any Muslim, regardless of the nature of their offence, let alone a child with Down’s syndrome who had been falsely accused?
Few Muslim leaders in Pakistan appear to have spoken up for Rimsha. They need to take heed of calls such as this from World Muslim Congress president Mike Ghouse, who said on Tuesday (21 August):