Surprising twist in Pakistani Christian child’s blasphemy case

A few weeks ago, we looked at coverage of the arrest of an 11-year-old Christian girl in Pakistan on blasphemy charges. She’d been accused of burning pages of the Quran. We had discussed the slight American coverage of the story, compared to interest in English-language press elsewhere. We also noted that there was a failure to talk to people who supported the blasphemy charge against the child.

The Associated Press has an update to the story:

A Muslim cleric is accused of stashing pages of a Quran in a Christian girl’s bag to make it seem like she burned the Islamic holy book, a surprising twist in a case that caused an international outcry over the country’s strict blasphemy laws.

Pakistani police arrested Khalid Chishti late Saturday after a member of the cleric’s mosque accused the imam of planting evidence as a way to push the Christians out of the neighborhood. Chishti denied the charges Sunday while being led to court in shackles, wearing a white blindfold.

Chishti is quoted as saying the charges were fabricated. We’re told that the imam’s arrest means the girl might be released. She currently faces a life sentence. Not mentioned in the story is that even if she’s released, she risks death by mob, a not uncommon penalty for people released from jail after blasphemy charges.

A Christian woman from the girls’ neighborhood is quoted and we learn more about the charges against Chishti:

Police said Chishti planted pages of a Quran in a shopping bag containing burned papers and ash that had been carried by the Christian girl. The bag was then submitted as evidence to the police.

A member of his mosque came forward Saturday — more than two weeks after the girl’s arrest — and accused the imam of planting the evidence, said the investigating officer, Munir Jaffery.

The case has shone an uncomfortable spotlight on the punishments for violating Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and caused an uproar in the country, largely because of the girl’s age and questions about her mental capacity.

The big “so what” about this case is handled well by the Associated Press. Human rights observers from within and outside Pakistan have been sounding the alarm about the country’s blasphemy laws, but people who bring blasphemy charges are rarely investigated, much less arrested for abusing the law. The article also suggests a reason for why investigation of those accusing others of blasphemy might not happen much:

Ali Dayan Hasan, head of Human Rights Watch in Pakistan, said the decision to act against the cleric was “unprecedented.”

“What it indicates is a genuine attempt at investigation rather than blaming the victim, which is what normally happens in blasphemy cases,” said Hasan. “They are actually taking a look at incitement to violence and false allegations. It is a welcome and positive development.”

Few leaders have been willing to tackle the contentious issue after two prominent politicians who criticized the law were murdered last year. One was shot by his own bodyguard, who then attracted adoring crowds.

The article also quotes local Muslims who say that the charges against their religious leader were trumped up by a problem-causing fellow member, that there are no problems with the blasphemy laws and if anything, there hasn’t been enough punishment for blasphemy. These local residents, we’re told, also believe the girl to be guilty. For that reason, it would have been nice to explore, even briefly, what her release might mean in terms of her safety. Still, a good story that helps explain some of the contours for this tricky situation. And I’m glad to see that Muslims who support the blasphemy laws and their execution were quoted in the piece.

Another example of quoting Muslims who support the laws comes from Reuters, which gave them a voice right at the top of the story:

Some Muslim neighbours insist [the girl] should still be punished, and said the detained imam was a victim.

Under Muslim Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy law, the mere allegation of causing offence to Islam can mean death. Those accused are sometimes killed by members of the public even if they are found innocent by the courts.

“Pour petrol and burn these Christians,” said Iqbal Bibi, 74, defending the imam on the steps of the mosque where he preaches in Masih’s impoverished village of Mehr Jaffer.

“The cleric of the mosque has been oppressed. He is not at fault. He is innocent.”

The lengthy Reuters report includes some good historical context about how blasphemy is treated officially and extra-judicially in Pakistan, how that is particularly bad news for Christians, and how people are responding to the present situation in different ways.

I’d still like more information from this subset of Muslims who seek capital punishment for the child on particularly why they believe that to be just or why Christians should be killed, but this is a good start and helps outsiders get a beginning look at the troubles facing this region in Pakistan.

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  • Jerry

    I’d still like more information from this subset of Muslims who seek capital punishment for the child

    What I want to read about is Muslims applying another side of Islam. Perhaps that voice can’t come from inside Pakistan given the level of fanaticism there, but this other voice is easily found:

    All innocent life was sacred and as such none could be harmed, except those who were engaged against them in active combat. Saving one life was as if one had saved the entire world, while taking an innocent life was as if one had taken the lives of the entire world.

    http://www.prophetofislam.com/what_did_muhammad_say.php

    • mollie

      Yes, we need more of that discussion, too. In fact, much more. We can’t begin to engage this issue without understanding not only what motivates those who seek death for blasphemy but what tools Islam might provide for fighting that attitude. I would hope good reportage would dig into these things, together.

  • Julia

    I have a beef with all reporting from that part of the world about attacks on “Christians” in Pakistan, India, Indonesia, etc. I watched the embedded BBC report in the Reuters article, the Christian churches sure look like Catholic or Anglican, and not Protestant or Orthodox. But Evangelical friends are assuming these are all attacks directed at Evangelical Protestant converts because the people are described in the media only as “Christians” , which the Evangelicals have evidently appropriated for only themselves. One woman I spoke with was shocked that there are Christian communities in the East that have been there since the time of St Paul – in the Near East and St Thomas – in Mesopotamia and further East.

    Why are the particular churches not identified? Are the Muslims angry at their own long-time Christian people or are they angry at recent Protestant converts? Are different Christian groups treated differently by the Muslims of South Asia and Oceana?

    Here’s an interesting article that gives the statistics on charges under this law – surprisingly the majority were Muslim themselves – and extra-judicial vigilante killings of those released. The article also talks about how NGO comments to the media and social media chatter is making the situation more difficult. At the center of the drama is the minister for religious harmony, a Catholic on good terms with Muslim leaders who is trying to keep a lid on things. Very brave man – his Catholic brother was assassinated last year for trying to get the blasphemy law overturned. He didn’t emigrate to the West, but stayed to try to make things better.
    http://www.asianews.it/news-en/Paul-Bhatti-against-NGOs-and-activists-who-speculate-on-blasphemous-disabled-girl-affair-25588.html

  • George Conger

    Julia — in Pakistan the Christian population is roughly divided between members of the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of Pakistan (itself a United Church formed in the 1970s from a merger of Anglicans, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Baptists, Methodists and other Protestant groups). While there may be some Christians who are members of the Indian Christian Churches that preceded the British colonial era — the vast majority of Pakistani Christians are descendents of converts from Islam and Hinduism. The 1948 partition saw the majority of Hindus leave — and those Christians who could go, did go to India. Christians today in Pakistan are found at the top of society (professionals, civil servants, army officers) and at the bottom landless peasants, slum dwellers etc.

    And again roughly speaking the anti-Christian zealotry, along with the anti-Shia, anti-Ahmadiya and anti-Hindu zealotry has arisen since the late 1970s and intensified in the last decade. The causes are rather straight forward — the introduction from Saudia Arabia of Wahabbism and the money to fund maddrassas that teach this particular interpretation of the faith. Combine a patronage system of government, wide spread poverty, corruption, no social mobility, a nasty religio-political ideology, and several lost wars with India and you have just scratched the surface of the problem of Pakistan.

  • Mike Hickerson

    Julia, why are you assuming that evangelicals are assuming that the Christians are evangelicals? In my experience, evangelicals that I know don’t distinguish between Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, etc. when it comes to human rights overseas. The cause of the Pakistani girl was brought for prayer at my Lutheran church over the weekend, and I’m pretty sure none of us were under the impression that she was Lutheran.

  • http://fkclinic.blogspot.com Nancy Reyes

    Fides news (a Catholic news site) says it’s about a land grab.LINK…and he also notes that Islam requires underaged children to be treated differently, so arresting her was illegal…

  • Julia

    My concern to know what kind of Christian this girl and other persecuted people are stems from conversations with real-live Evangelicals who don’t consider Catholics or Orthodox to be Christian. The second woman wanted to know if these Christians were in trouble for trying to convert Muslims, assuming they were Evangelicals like her. I was trying to explain that there are also people in the Middle East and South Asia who have been Christians for hundreds and sometimes nearly two thousand years.. She was rather skeptical.

    This is particularly irking because I attended a shower for my nephew and his fiance whose family is from Iraq. Had a long talk with her father who talked about his frustration at dealing with many Americans who have no idea there are or were Christians in Iraq. His people are Assyrians, the folks who built Nineveh a long, long time ago. They were among the first Christians. His particular church is the Assyrian (Syriac) Catholic Church
    whose liturgy is still in Aramaic.

    It’s kind of like the Parsi’s of India, late of old Persia where they were known as Zoroastrians. I met a woman at a family party who was Parsi and was shocked I knew what that was. Like the Assyrians, these folks are really concerned that they are dying out and nobody will even notice because most people don’t know these ancient people still exist.

    I’d like to see the media do a better job of describing people properly so the world knows they exist.

    George: I had thought that maybe Pakistan has some Malabar or Malankar or the old St Thomas Christians from South India. Not really likely, but could be. They would not like you describing the Catholics in Pakistan as Roman Catholic – it makes them feel 2nd class since they are just as connected to the Pope as the Latins are.

  • Passing By

    Another twist in this story:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/sep/03/christian-girl-senior-pakistani-cleric-blasphemy

    I did a quick google check and still don’t find many U.S. outlets talking about it, and certainly not this new aspect of the story. That’s relevant for lots of reasons, one of which is that Americans sometimes complain that Muslim atrocities aren’t met with denunciations by Muslims clerics. Here we have just such a denunciation and I’m not finding a lot of American news outlets telling us about it.

  • http://paknews.pk Azhar Nadeem

    It is glad to mention that poor girl has been released. No Injustice served, Thanks God. But as a matter of fact her religion came to her rescue. Muslims are more than 50% blasphemy prisoners but only non muslims gets highlighted……interesting

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