MANCHESTER, England – The acquittal of a Pakistani Catholic woman sentenced to hang for blasphemy is to be challenged in the country's Supreme Court, according to her husband.
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SYDNEY – Asia Bibi has been released from death row and prison in Pakistan and is now under heavy protective guard in a secret location with her family, reported a longtime Catholic missionary involved with negotiations in Pakistan about her case.
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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Pakistan's Supreme Court has set aside the death sentence of Asia Bibi, a Catholic convicted of blasphemy, and ordered her release from prison.

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CHESTER, England – A court in Pakistan has reached a decision on whether a Catholic woman will become the first person to hang to death under the country's controversial blasphemy laws.
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VATICAN – During his Angelus address on Sunday, Pope Francis discussed the incomprehension Christ faced during his earthly ministry, from both the scribes and his own family.
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Pope Francis said on Thursday that corruption is a form of blasphemy which leads to the worship of money and the exploitation of others. His words came during the homily at his regular Santa Marta Mass for this last week of the Church’s liturgical year.

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OTTAWA - It’s been five years since the assassination of Pakistani Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, but his religious freedom legacy lives on in Canada and around the world. 

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LAHORE, Pakistan - A Pakistani court has directed the Punjab provincial government and police to give the father of death row convict Asia Bibi prison visitation rights, a family lawyer said.

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VATICAN CITY - The Vatican’s semi-official newspaper blasted a series of cartoons of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad as “blasphemous” but also condemned the “mad and bloodthirsty” extremists who opened fire at a Texas exhibit of the cartoons.

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DUBLIN - The Irish government will not hold a national referendum to remove the offense of blasphemy from the country's constitution.

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THRISSUR, India - The Catholic Church in Pakistan has presented a series of demands to the government, calling for a fair and thorough investigation into the beatings and burning of a young Christian couple accused of desecrating the Quran.

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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (CNS) -- The Islamabad High Court ordered police to dismiss blasphemy charges against a Christian Pakistani girl whose arrest and detention drew international condemnation.

The ruling from Chief Justice Iqbal Hammeed ur Rehman Nov. 19 said there was no evidence that Rimsha Masih burned papers from the Quran, reported Pakistan's Dawn news agency.

"The court has quashed the case, declaring Rimsha innocent," Akmal Bhatti, the girl's attorney, told Agence France-Presse.
Rimsha was taken into police custody Aug. 18 after a resident of the area in which the girl and her family lived accused her of burning pages of the Islamic holy book. She was released on bail Sept. 8.

Two weeks after Rimsha was picked up, Khalid Jadoon Chishti, the imam or prayer leader who accused her of burning pages of the Quran, was taken into police custody. According to a police official quoted by the Associated Press, witnesses claim the imam tore pages from a Quran and planted them along with burned pieces of paper in the girl's bag.

He faces charges of planting evidence and desecrating the Quran used against the girl. The courts have yet to rule in the case.
Rimsha's parents said she is 11 years old and has Down syndrome; a court-appointed physician reported she was about 14 and is developmentally delayed.

Paul Bhatti, the only Christian member of Pakistan's federal cabinet, confirmed the high court had dismissed the case.

"I welcome this order. Justice has been done and the law of the land has been upheld by the court," he told Agence France-Presse.

"It will send out a positive image of Pakistan in the international community that there is justice for all and that society has risen up for justice and intolerance," he said.

Out of fear for their safety, Rimsha and her family moved to an undisclosed location after the girl's release.

Published in International
September 12, 2012

Unjust law must go

The photos were startling: a military helicopter, heavily armed soldiers and a mentally handicapped girl being rushed through a prison courtyard to board a flight to safety.

Rimsha Masih must have been terrified. A blanket shrouded her head to hide her face from the many fanatics in Pakistan demanding her death. But shielding her identity also had the powerful effect of exposing yet again the outrage of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

Masih was accused of burning pages of the Quran, arrested, charged with the capital offence of blasphemy and locked up for three weeks. Amid howls for justice and decency, a judge ruled the charges defied belief and granted her bail. Soon afterward, Masih’s jail cell was given to a Muslim cleric who had incited a crowd against her. He was arrested on suspicion of planting evidence on the girl in a plot to foment hatred for Christians and drive them from their homes.

Masih’s case quite rightly garnered international headlines. Even before the cleric’s plot was exposed, demands for her release were heard around the world. Her age is disputed (her family said she is 11 while a medical report puts it at 14) but it is clear she is a minor with the mental capacity of a much younger girl.

Her release and the arrest of her accuser are welcomed signs that, at some level, the condemnation by various governments, Church groups and lay organizations of Pakistan’s blasphemy outrages are being heard. The Canadian government and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, to name just two, have been commendably vocal in denouncing the blasphemy laws. They’ve been joined by a core of Pakistanis, both Christian and Muslim, who’ve advocated bravely for tolerance despite obvious risks.

Yet it would be a mistake to crow too loudly over one small victory.

Masih received bail but she is still facing the original charges and a conviction could still bring the death penalty. Many Pakistanis were outraged at her arrest but many others still call for death to her and her family. The judge acted humanely in granting bail but prosecutors still have not dropped the outrageous charges against the traumatized girl.  The army provided a helicopter and soldiers to fly Masih to safety but the government still shows no readiness to replace these vile laws with laws that guarantee dignity and respect for religious minorities.

A Pakistani study reveals that 250 blasphemy cases have occurred there since 1987 and 52 people have been killed after being accused, often falsely, of blasphemy. So Masih’s case is an international reminder of Pakistan’s obstinacy on this issue. The blasphemy laws must go.

Showing compassion to one traumatized, fraudulently accused, mentally handicapped child really is the least Pakistani authorities could do.

Published in Editorial

OTTAWA- A letter from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops to Pakistan's High Commissioner is among many interventions being cited for the release from prison of a Pakistani Christian girl accused of blasphemy.

International Christian Voice (ICV) chairman Peter Bhatti credits the bishops' letter, among other signs of international support, for the release of Rimsha Masih on bail Sept. 7. The 11-year-old girl with Down syndrome was imprisoned Aug. 16 after being accused of burning a Quran. Since her arrest, a Muslim cleric was detained Sept. 2 on suspicion of fabricating evidence against Masih.

"She just came out from bail," said Bhatti, the brother of Shahbaz Bhatti, the assassinated former Minorities Minister and first Christian in the Pakistan government's cabinet. "Her case is not finished yet, and we're not sure how long it will go."

In the meantime, she and her family continue to need protection from extremists who have threatened to burn the family alive and also threatened her 1,500-member Christian community, most of whom have gone into hiding, he said.
"I would like to thank the Canadian Catholic bishops' conference for intervening in this issue," Bhatti said.

The CCCB's human rights committee chairman sent a letter Aug. 31 to the High Commissioner of Pakistan expressing concern for Masih.

"This serious situation has prompted the President of Pakistan, His Excellency Mr. Asif Ali Zardari, to call for an investigation," wrote Bishop Francois Lapierre to High Commissioner Mian Gul Akbar Zeb. "We welcome this gesture, given the circumstances not only of the girl herself but also of Pakistan's religious minorities, including Christians, who are regularly the target of fundamentalist groups, in particular regarding anti-blasphemy laws.

"This year marks the 20th anniversary of the adoption by all States in 1992 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Persons from National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities," Lapierre wrote on behalf of the human rights committee. "In view of this declaration and the initiative of the president of Pakistan, we ask your government to take the necessary measures to find a solution that ensures this girl's freedom, peace and security."

A copy of the letter was sent to Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird who has also publicly expressed concern for the girl's plight as well as those of others targeted through the blasphemy laws.

Bhatti said he was thankful for the interventions not only of the bishops and Baird, but also Immigration Minister Jason Kenney and many other Members of Parliament who have continued to put pressure on Pakistan to repeal its draconian blasphemy laws.

Shahbaz Bhatti was assassinated in 2011 for his opposition to the blasphemy laws and now his brother Paul Bhatti, an eye surgeon, has been serving as National Harmony Minister in Pakistan's government as well as chairman of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance, which put up the bail for Masih.

ICV is holding a fundraiser in Toronto Sept. 14 to raise money for Masih, her family and members of their community. For information e-mail info@internationalchristianvoice.com.

Published in International

OTTAWA - The family and community of an 11-year-old girl with Down syndrome who was arrested under Pakistan's draconian blasphemy laws face threats of mob violence and burning, warns International Christian Voice (ICV).

ICV founder and chairman Peter Bhatti said Rimsha Masih's family and much of her 1,500-strong Christian community is in hiding because extremists have said that because the girl burned pages of the Koran her whole family must be burned.

"We request that the rest of the Muslim community come forward to help the Christians of Pakistan," Bhatti said. He also appealed for financial assistance for the displaced families.

Bhatti is the older brother of Pakistan's assassinated Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, the first Christian to hold a cabinet post in the Pakistan government. He was the second prominent political leader in Pakistan to be assassinated by extremists after publicly speaking against the blasphemy laws. His brother, Dr. Paul Bhatti, is now acting as an advisor to the Pakistan government on religious minorities.

Shahbaz Bhatti was ambushed by gunmen on March 2, 2011, only two months after the slaying of Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer.

Masih was charged under the blasphemy laws and put in jail, a move that drew condemnation from Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird.

"I am deeply troubled by reports that a young girl with developmental disabilities has been arrested for alleged blasphemy in Pakistan and that her family faces threats of violence," Baird said in a statement. "Canada is concerned about the safety of the girl, her family and their community. We have learned that local religious leaders are working together with authorities to calm the situation.

"We urge Pakistan's political and religious leaders to continue to co-operate to protect the family and community," he said. "Canada strongly condemns any act of religious persecution. We urge Pakistan's government to ensure equal rights for all Pakistanis, including members of minority communities."

ICV, founded to provide support for persecuted Christians and other religious minorities in Pakistan, is holding a fundraising dinner Sept. 14 to raise money for the persecuted community.

Bhatti also expressed alarm over the brutal slaying of a 14-year-old Christian orphan from Faisalabad, a city 255 km south of Islamabad. Suneel Masih's mutilated body was discovered Aug. 21 with his nose, ears and tongue removed and acid splashed on what remained of his face. His limbs had been pulled off. Internal organs, including his liver and kidneys were also removed. The boy had gone into a local market to buy a shirt when he disappeared.

Christians are not the only vulnerable minority in Pakistan. Hindus and some Muslim groups outside the mainstream are also targeted, according to news reports.

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Charles Lewis: We must open eyes to anti-Christian bigotry

Most of us take for granted the safety and peace of our houses of worship so when that is broken it is akin to being punched in the gut, Lewis writes.

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