MANCHESTER, England - Pakistani authorities freed Asia Bibi, a Catholic woman acquitted of blasphemy, and she has flown to Canada to join her family at a secret address.

Published in Canada
VATICAN – Servant of God Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic politician from Pakistan who was killed in 2011, is a witness of how to act with love in the face of hatred, Pope Francis said Friday.
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 - 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