WASHINGTON (BP) -- Pakistani police have arrested a Muslim cleric for allegedly planting evidence against Rimsha Masih, a mentally handicapped Christian girl accused of committing blasphemy by desecrating texts from the Quran.
In an ironic twist to the case, Khalid Chisti, the cleric in Masih's neighborhood, will himself be charged with blasphemy for allegedly tearing out pages of a Quran in an effort to frame Masih, according to media reports.
Several witnesses -- including Chisti's own deputy -- have come forward claiming that after a neighbor caught Masih carrying a bag of burnt trash, Chisti added pages from the Quran hoping to stir up animosity against Christians and drive them out of the neighborhood.
"I asked him what he was doing and he said this is the evidence against them and this is how we can get them out from this area," Chisti's deputy, Mohammad Zubair, told a Pakistani television station after the cleric's Sept. 1 arrest, according to the Guardian.
Police officer Munir Jafferi confirmed to the Associated Press that Chisti will indeed be charged with blasphemy for allegedly desecrating the Quran, a crime that could land him in prison for life if convicted. Jafferi said police also may bring other charges against Chisti, such as planting evidence and making false allegations.
The case has drawn widespread attention since police arrested Masih for blasphemy over two weeks ago after an angry mob demanded action. Her parents are in protective custody, and her arrest has sparked new criticism of Pakistan's blasphemy laws, which critics say can be used to persecute religious minorities and settle personal vendettas.
The particulars of Masih's case -- her age, mental difficulties and now the arrest of Chisti for framing her -- have brought her support from the unlikeliest of corners in Pakistan.
The Guardian reported that Hafiz Mohammad Tahir Mehmood Ashrafi, chairman of the All Pakistan Ulema Council, an organization of Islamic clerics, lent his support to Masih, calling her a "daughter of the nation."
Ashrafi, who previously was associated with a council that includes members of outlawed militant groups, harshly criticized Chisti in a news conference at an Islamabad hotel, alleging Chisti was part of a plot to drive Christians out of the neighborhood so an Islamic school could be built on their property.
Ashrafi said he decided to speak out after reading reports that Masih has Down syndrome, a mental condition his 15-year-old son also has.
"Our heads are bowed with shame for what Chishti did," the Guardian reported him saying.
(Ashrafi's name also has appeared as Allama Tahir Ashrafi in media reports.)
Masih's attorney, Tahir Naveed Chaudhry, said the young girl will remain behind bars at least until Friday, after her Monday bail hearing was postponed due to a lawyers' strike.
But even if she does make bail, her life likely will be in jeopardy. Vigilantes have murdered people accused of blasphemy, and two prominent Pakistani politicians were assassinated for simply criticizing the country's blasphemy laws.
One of them was Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan's minorities minister, who was gunned down after defending Asia Bibi, a Christian woman accused of blasphemy. His brother, Paul Bhatti, who heads the Ministry of National Harmony and is the country's only Christian cabinet member, told the Daily Telegraph he hopes Masih will be freed.
"Her general condition is OK but as you can imagine she is a young girl locked away from her family, in a strange situation, having some learning difficulties so she is very disturbed and is often asking for her mother and to go home," Bhatti said.
Bhatti is calling for an interfaith commission to vet blasphemy charges before they reach the courts, a small step that could still be dangerous given his brother's fate.
"If you don't come to take some bold steps then things will never change, the minorities will never be protected," Bhatti told the Telegraph. "I am taking safety measures but I know the risk is there."
Compiled by John Evans, a writer in Houston. EDITOR'S NOTE: an additional report has been published by Open Doors News, which follows. Used by permission.
Pakistani Christians worry
about 'the next Rimsha'
By Staff/Open Doors News
LAHORE, Pakistan (BP) -- Nabil was out pretending to wash his father's car, as an evening breeze cut through Pakistan's monsoon humidity. Together with his father and a Christian neighbor, they had made their way out of the house late last week on this everyday pretext. In reality, they were trying to prevent their Muslim neighbors and the women in their families from overhearing or worrying over their conversation.
As he wiped the car, Nabil spoke in hushed tones to their friend from two blocks away and his father, a pastor in Lahore. Nabil had come home to spend the summer with his family. Naturally, the topic was Rimsha Masih, the young Islamabad Christian girl arrested Aug. 16 after Muslim neighbors told police she was carrying burned pages of Quranic texts.
Because of the vulnerability of Christians in Pakistan, especially when questioning the country's blasphemy law, Open Doors News is not publishing Nabil's real name.
"I live and work in the Middle East, so I am able to send my children to school here in Pakistan," Nabil said. "But I am seriously thinking of coming back now. What happens if my little Zari becomes the next Rimsha, or my wife the next Asia ? What good is school, if she will only graduate into prison?"
Nabil's conversation echoed questions being raised across Pakistan. He said there is little that will change in terms of Pakistan's controversial blasphemy law.
"God's Word has told us that there will be trials and tribulations, and that there will be persecution for Christians," Nabil told the neighbor, who questioned how Pakistani Christians could have any hope for a future.
"That is our future before we go to heaven. Either we accept that difficulty will come or we pretend we have the right to something outside of the Word of God. Let us just seek His grace and hope."
The conversation continued in low tones. All three were afraid their voices might carry to the neighbors. Nabil's family lives on the second floor of a home that belongs to a Muslim landlord who lives directly below them. Nabil always is concerned that his children will say something to cause them to be falsely accused of blaspheming against the prophet Muhammad, the Quran or Islam.
The story of Rimsha has shaken Christian families across Pakistan and has re-ignited national debate on the blasphemy law. Immediately after Rimsha's arrest, Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari warned against misuse of the law. The Sept. 1 arrest of a Muslim cleric on suspicion of placing the religious texts into the girl's possession has elevated tensions to a high pitch.
"President Zardari has finally spoken! Thank goodness someone came to the rescue, although it seems a meager and useless attempt," the neighbor said with some skepticism, because Rimsha's ordeal follows three particularly devastating cases.
After being falsely accused and arrested in June 2009, Asia Bibi became the first woman in Pakistan sentenced to death under the blasphemy law. She has been languishing in a Pakistani prison and solitary confinement ever since. Her controversial case prompted criticism of the blasphemy law from Punjab Governor Salman Taseer and Federal Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, who were subsequently assassinated. Threats also have been leveled at Sherry Rehman, Pakistan's ambassador to the United States.
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