Pakistan's blasphemy law targets 11-year-old Christian

It is a common critique that residents of one country are disinterested in the goings on in other countries. But one story from this weekend spread quickly across news media and social media -- albeit less so in American media than globally. The story is a sad one. I first learned about it from a news outlet called Times of India:

ISLAMABAD: An 11-year-old Christian girl has been arrested in Pakistani capital on a charge of blasphemy after she was accused of burning pages of the Quran, police said on Saturday.

Officials of Ramna police station said an FIR had been registered against Rimsha Masih, a resident of Umara Jaffar in sector G-12 in Islamabad.

The girl was arrested on Friday by personnel from a women's police station after a man named Syed Muhammad Ummad filed a complaint against her.

The story went on to explain that local NGOs report the girl has Down syndrome. While the Times of India story, and others, spread the information about the arrest, it is frustrating how little information and context is coming through. This (Australia) story is better, but it's still limited:

Police arrested Rimsha, who is recognised by a single name, on Thursday after she was reported holding in public burnt pages which had Islamic text and Koranic verses on them, a police official said.

A conviction for blasphemy is punishable by death in Pakistan.

The official said that the girl, who he described as being in her teens, was taken to a police station in the capital Islamabad, where she has been detained since.

Angry Muslim protesters held rallies demanding she be punished, said the official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case.

"We had to register the case fairly quickly to prevent any unpleasant situation," he added, referring to the demonstrations.

The suggestion is that charges were filed against the girl in order to protect her from the angry mob that was about to execute vigilante judgment against her. But what does this "angry Muslim protesters" mean? It would be helpful to know more about these protesters and if and how their views differ from others in the country. That the government got involved to protect her -- if my reading of this report is correct -- means something different than if they were leading the charge to execute a Christian 11-year-old with Down syndrome on blasphemy charges. Not a humongous difference, obviously, since she might suffer the same punishment, but a difference none-the-less.

Which brings us to this BBC report, which adds more context:

Her parents have been taken into protective custody following threats and other Christian families have fled.

It is thought that the girl has Down's syndrome.

Paul Bhatti, Pakistan's minister for National Harmony, told the BBC that the girl was known to have a mental disorder and that it seemed "unlikely she purposefully desecrated the Koran".

"From the reports I have seen, she was found carrying a waste bag which also had pages of the Koran," he said.

"This infuriated some local people and a large crowd gathered to demand action against her. The police were initially reluctant to arrest her, but they came under a lot of pressure from a very large crowd, who were threatening to burn down Christian homes."

He said more than 600 people have fled from the Christian neighbourhood.

You'll note that none of these reports are from American media. At the time of this writing, the reports I found were from outside American borders. Actually, as I come back in here this morning, it looks like American media is beginning to take note of this latest Pakistan blasphemy law story. There's also this CNN International report, which gives more information and includes a quote from Muslim politicians within the country who are opposed to the blasphemy charge:

The statement from President Asif Ali Zardari called for an urgent report into the incident and said that vulnerable sections of society must be protected "from any misuse of the blasphemy law."

"Blasphemy by anyone cannot be condoned but no one will be allowed to misuse blasphemy law for settling personal scores," the president's spokesperson Farhatullah Babar said.

Critics of Pakistan's controversial blasphemy laws say they are being used to persecute religious minorities.

Leader of political party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and former international cricketer, Imran Khan, tweeted: "Shameful! Sending an 11yr old girl to prison is against the very spirit of Islam which is all about being Just and Compassionate.

Of course, given how widespread the support for these blasphemy laws is, it would be more helpful to have quotes from those defending them. It can be very difficult for readers outside the country to grasp the basis for and support of these capital blasphemy laws. Knowing that a few politicians carefully oppose them doesn't exactly do much to further our understanding. Still, a helpful report and more is needed as this story progresses.

Image via Ahmadiyya Times.

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