By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN (BosNewsLife)– Muslims torched Christian homes and “destroyed” a church in a slum area of Islamabad while suspected militants shot at another church outside Pakistan’s capital, after the jailing of a mentally handicapped Christian girl for “blasphemy”, witnesses said Tuesday, August 21.
“Our staff and a few [other] Christians went into [Islamabad’s] colony of Meherabadi [late Monday local time ],” added Farrukh H. Saif, executive director of Pakistani rights group World Vision In Progress (WVIP).
“We found that five houses were burned and one church was destroyed,” he told BosNewsLife. “Bibles [have been torn] to pieces and a [church] cross is broken”, the official said.
Elsewhere in Pakistan’s southern city of Karachi the Catholic St. Matthew’s Church was “attacked by unknown extremists at 2 a.m. local time,” added Saif, citing investigators.
“They opened fire at the Church building which damaged the front of the building,” in Karachi’s Pehlwan Goth neighborhood, he explained.
Karachi’s WVIP representative in Karachi, Sunny Bernard Gill, said the incident had “created tension and fear among Christians of the Pehlwan Goth” area.
This was not an isolated incident in the neighborhood as “Muslim extremists” have attacked Christian properties and churches twice over the last year, Saif said.
The latest violence came as 11-year-old Rimsha Masih was preparing to spend another night in Adiala jail, a grim facility in Rawalpindi, close to Islamabad.
Police jailed the girl Friday, August 17, after at least hundreds of Muslim protesters demanded that she face charges under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.
A local cleric had said she burned pages of the Noorani Qaida, a religious textbook used to teach the Koran to children, said Saif.
Rimsha is thought to be mentally handicapped, but police quoted in some media claimed “she had no mental impairments” and that she may be older.
However Saif told BosNewsLife he is convinced about her young age and stressed she “could not have known she burned the textbook as she can not read.”
As Pakistani Muslims celebrated the feast of Id al-Fitr, Rimsha was still in Adiala jail reportedly with her mother, awaiting their fate.
Muslim mobs have been pressuring the girl’s Christian neighbors and others to flee, Saif and other activists said.
Thousands of Christians were still outside the slum area where the alleged burning incident happened, fearing for their lives, according to several human rights workers.
There were concerns late Tuesday, August 21, that at least several Christian refugees would have no place to return to, amid reports of burning homes. WVIP said it was distributing food among hundreds of impoverished Christians.
Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari stressed in a statement that he had “taken notice” of the situation and ordered the Interior Ministry to investigate the girl’s detention.
Under Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy legislation anyone, including apparently minors, can face the death penalty or at least a long prison term for blasphemy against Islam.
On Monday, August 20, Dutch parliamentarians of the ChristianUnie, or’ChristianUnion’ party, urged the Netherlands and the European Union to pressure Pakistan to release Rimsha and demand an end to the blasphemy laws.
The case underscores concerns over thousands of children who rights activists say are languishing in Pakistani jails, often without proper legal representation, or just forgotten by what critics view as a corrupt and bureaucratic judicial system.