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.

Published in Canada

VATICAN CITY - Pakistani institutions and religious leaders are working together for the release of a Christian girl accused of blasphemy and to reduce the risk of Muslim-Christian violence over the incident, said the Pakistani prime minister's special advisor on minorities.

Paul Bhatti, the Catholic advisor, told the Vatican's Fides news agency Aug. 23 that those working to secure the girl's release included Muslim leaders.

Fides, the news agency of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, has reported that the girl, Rimsha Masih, is an 11-year-old with Down syndrome. She was taken into custody Aug. 18 after allegedly being found with burned pages of the Quran, the Muslim holy book. When the police took her away, hundreds of angry Muslims were reportedly gathering in the mainly poor Christian neighbourhood of Islamabad where she lived.

Hundreds of families have fled the neighbourhood, and the police presence has increased.

"The situation is under control," Bhatti told Fides.

Catholic leaders in Pakistan and human rights activists have said the country's anti-blasphemy law, which includes offenses against the Quran, has been misused to persecute Christians and other minorities in the country.

Daughter of St. Paul Sister Daniela Baronchelli, who works in Pakistan, told Vatican Radio Aug. 20: "We have been told that the girl cannot respond to the interrogation. They found her with a bag that had parts of a burned Quran inside. They don't know, however, who gave it to her or where she got it; they don't know anything."

Sr. Daniela said the angry crowd "wanted to burn her alive because they say it was a great offense against the Quran."

The unjust use of the anti-blasphemy law "unfortunately is becoming all too common. The fact is that the extremists don't want the Christians here any more, so any little thing — true or not — is enough to incite a revolt," she said.

Published in International

OTTAWA - The Canadian government has recognized two outstanding defenders of religious freedom and human rights when awards were granted to the assassinated Pakistani Minister Shahbaz Bhatti and Argentinian anti-trafficking activist Susana Trimarco.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird presented the awards at the 2012 John Diefenbaker Defender of Human Rights Award ceremony Mar. 14 at the former Ottawa City Hall.

Published in Canada

JERUSALEM - Almost a year after the eruption of the Arab Spring uprisings, the Middle East is a place of hope and fear for Christians, said Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz.

Bishop Kicanas, chairman of the board of the U.S. bishops' Catholic Relief Services, was in Baghdad late last year and visited Egypt prior to his arrival in Jerusalem Jan. 8-12 for the annual Holy Land Coordination meeting with bishops from the United States, Canada and Europe.

"There is a fear among the Christians (in Egypt) whether they will be given human rights and whether they will be treated as equal citizens. There is a sense of wait and see," Bishop Kicanas told Catholic News Service Jan. 11.

Published in International

OTTAWA - Canada’s Parliament has called on Pakistan to release a Christian woman who faces a possible death sentence under that country’s onerous blasphemy laws.

On Dec. 8, the House of Commons unanimously passed a motion “calling upon the Government of Pakistan to immediately release Ms. Asia Bibi, to ensure her safety and well-being, to hear the outcry of the international community and to respect the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

The motion, tabled by Liberal MP Irwin Cotler, was welcomed by International Christian Voice, a religious freedom organization founded by Peter Bhatti, the brother of the former Pakistani Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti who was assassinated March 2 this year.

Bhatti was the second highly ranked Pakistani official who was assassinated for speaking against the blasphemy laws. On Jan. 4, Punjab province governor Salmaan Taseer was killed by his own bodyguard for defence of Bibi. Bhatti, a Roman Catholic, was the only Christian in the Pakistani government. His brother Dr. Paul Bhatti, was appointed as an advisor to the Pakistani Prime Minister on minority issues in late March.

“International Christian Voice along with the religious minorities of Pakistan, strongly appreciate the Canadian government for approving a motion calling upon the Government of Pakistan for the immediate release of Asia Bibi and to repeal its blasphemy laws,” said Peter Bhatti in a news release. “We feel very proud and blessed to be a part of a country that fights for justice and religious freedom not only for Canadians but for all. Canada continues to stand as a champion of human rights, democracy and religious freedom.”

On Dec. 9, as Canada marked Human Rights Day, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird called 2011 a “landmark year” for human rights, but noted many innocent people continued to be persecuted for their sexual orientation, politics or religion. He reiterated the government’s pledge to establish an Office of Religious Freedom. “The history of humanity has proven that religious freedom and democratic freedom are inseparable,” Baird said in a statement.

On Dec. 5, in a statement to the House, Conservative MP Bob Dechert, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, reminded the House of Baird’s response last November to Bibi’s incarceration.

“At the time, the Government of Canada registered its concerns with Pakistan at high levels,” Dechert said. “We have also called on the Government of Pakistan to repeal laws criminalizing blasphemy, which restrict religious freedom and expression and have disproportionately targeted religious minorities.”

Dechert said human right promotion and protection remain integral to Canada’s foreign policy.

The Foreign Affairs ministry has been conducting consultations on the Office of Religious Freedom but no date has been announced for its establishment.

Published in Canada
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