Islamabad (AsiaNews) - For the first time in Pakistan's history, the country's 'black law' has been used against a minor, a disabled 11-year-old Christian girl. Arrested on blasphemy charges, Rimsha Masih, who suffers from Down's syndrome, could get life in prison. Only police intervention saved her from a lynch mob of Muslim extremists. Her case has shocked Islamabad's Christian community, driving hundreds of Christian families from their homes in the girl's neighbourhood fearing possible retaliation. National Harmony Minister Paul Bhatti, a Catholic, has called on Muslim religious leaders to snuff out any source of violence.
The 11-year-old girl, Rimsha Masih, is at the centre of a terrible affair. After being charged with desecrating the Qur'an, she was remanded for 14 days to a juvenile prison in Rawalpindi. The offence comes under Article 295-B of the Pakistan Penal Code and carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Witnesses claim that Rimsha, daughter of Misrak Masih, burnt ten pages of the Noorani Qaida, an Islamic booklet used to learn basic Arabic and the Qur'an. She is also said to have put the booklet inside a plastic bag, which she threw into the garbage.
Supposedly, the event occurred on 17 August in Umara Jaffar, a slum in Islamabad's Sector G-12, where the girl lives with her family. Police filed a First Information Report after a Muslim man, Syed Muhammad Ummad, made a formal complaint.
Police took Rimsha Masih into custody under pressure from Muslim extremists. Threatening to take justice in their own hands, a mob of hundreds enraged people attacked the girl's family, trying to lynch her and her mother. Police eventually took the girl away for her own safety, in prison.
Fearing more violence, some 300 families living in the Christian slum fled their homes seeking safety elsewhere. Local sources told AsiaNews that in the area, tensions are running high and that Muslim fundamentalists are threatening to set fire to Christian homes.
National Harmony Minister Paul Bhatti, who is also special advisor to the prime minister on minority affairs, has appealed to Muslim leaders, especially clerics, asking them to help keep the lid on matters to avoid anti-Christian attacks. His brother Shabbaz, Pakistan's first Catholic minister, was murdered by extremists on 2 March 2011 because of this opposition to the 'black law.'
Last month, a mentally disabled Muslim man was burnt alive in Bahawalpur, southern Pakistan, after he was accused of blasphemy and a mob set him on fire for "desecrating the Qur'an."
On the internet, the girl's arrest has caused a wave of protests. Many wonder: "Is this the real Islam?" Others wonder who are the real mental cases, "the girl or those who would punish her" for allegedly breaking the law.
The blasphemy law was introduced in 1986 by General Zia-ul-haq in response to demands by Muslim extremists. Thus far, at least a thousand people have been charged for breaking it. Of these, 60 have died, mostly killed in extrajudicial murders by enraged mobs or individuals.