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

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VATICAN CITY - The case against a Pakistani Christian girl accused of blasphemy seemed to take a turn in her favour after a Muslim cleric was arrested on suspicion of fabricating evidence against her.

Khalid Jadoon Chishti, the imam or prayer leader who has accused Rimsha Masih of burning pages of the Muslim holy book, was taken into police custody Sept. 2. 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.

Rimsha has been in police custody since Aug. 18. Her parents said she is 11 years old and has Down syndrome; a court appointed physician found that she was about 14 and is developmentally delayed.

A Pakistan court delayed her bail hearing until Sept. 1, but postponed it again until Sept. 7 after the judge in the case changed.

The girl's lawyer, Tahir Naveed, told Vatican Radio Sept. 3 that with the arrest of the Muslim cleric, "it is no secret that Rimsha is innocent. This shows that there was a conspiracy."

Naveed said Rimsha's case is just the latest instance of someone misusing Pakistan's strict anti-blasphemy laws to intimidate or persecute others.

"After the arrest of Imam Jadoon, everyone is talking and reflecting on the fact that this law can be used improperly and even abused," Naveed said.

Capuchin Father Francis Nadeem, co-ordinator of the National Council for Interreligious Dialogue in Lahore, said the charges against the girl appeared to be part of a plot by a local "land mafia."
"Unscrupulous criminals intend to wrest land from Christians and drive them out from Mehrabadi, a suburb of Islamabad where Rimsha's family lives," Nadeem told the Vatican's missionary news agency Fides. "This is why they made up the case, blaming an innocent child."

Accusations that a Christian had burned the Quran drew an angry crowd, prompting hundreds of Christian families to flee the neighbourhood.

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