By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
ISLAMABAD/OSLO (BosNewsLife)– There was controversy, Wednesday, October 10, over the whereabouts of a mentally challenged Pakistani Christian girl who has been charged with “blasphemy against Islam”, after some Pakistani and Norwegian officials played down reports she had fled with family members to Norway.
In a statement the Norwegian Embassy in Islamabad said it had “become aware of stories in Pakistani media” that Rimsha Masih had arrived in the Scandinavian nation.
“The Embassy would like to inform that neither the Embassy, nor any other Norwegian authority has had any contact with the girl or her family, and there has been no initiative to bring her out of Pakistan,” the embassy claimed in a statement.
It did not address reports that the initiative came from Pakistani Christians in Europe. Norwegian immigration officials did neither deny nor confirm her arrival saying they are not commenting on individual cases.
Pakistan’s Ministry of National Harmony, Paul Bhatti, said in published remarks, “There’s no truth in rumors that Rimsha has been moved to Norway,” adding that she is hiding in the country. He said he hopes she would be cleared of all charges during a trial hearing on October 17.
NORWAY CLAIM REPEATED
Yet, the Pakistan-based advocacy and aid group World Vision In Progress (WVIP), which is involved in the case, maintained that Pakistan’s government was misleading the public.
“I am not 100, but 200 percent sure she is in Norway. They are lying,” WVIP Executive Director Farrukh H. Saif told BosNewsLife.
Acknowledging that Rimsha was secretly moved from Pakistan while her trial is still ongoing would be a highly controversial move for Pakistan’s leadership at a time of rising Islamic militancy in the country, according to Christian observers.
Rimsha, 14, made world headlines after she was detained in August in a prison near the capital Islamabad after allegedly burning pages with verses of the Koran, viewed as holy book by Muslims.
Her detention at Adiala Jail sparked an international outcry, in part because of her age and a medical report confirming she was mentally handicapped.
FLOWN TO SAFETY
Amid mounting pressure, Rimsha was eventually flown to safety on September 8 after an Islamabad court set a bail of one million Pakistani rupees ($10,600).
Soon, an interim police report suggested she was “innocent” of the charges.
Imam Hafiz Mohammed Khalid Chisht allegedly stashed Koranic papers in the girl‘s bag to ensure her conviction and push out Christians from the Islamabad slum area where she grew up.
The detained Muslim leader denied wrongdoing and three witnesses who initially confirmed Chisht’s actions withdrew their statements saying they were recorded “under police pressure.”
Amid the legal wrangling, Farrukh said the girl was eventually flown to Norway, accompanied by her parents, two sisters and one brother. European Pakistani Christians arranged her asylum, he added.
A prosecutor involved in the case, earlier said she had flown to Norway, Norwegian media reported.
DIFFICULT LIFE AHEAD
Wherever she is hiding, Rimsha and her family will face a difficult life amid threats from Islamic militants and their followers, according to rights experts.
Blasphemy is a sensitive issue in this heavily Islamic nation where Christians comprise some four percent of the 180 million strong population.
There are over 15 cases of people on death row for blasphemy in Pakistan and 52 people are known to have died while facing trial, according to rights activists.
In 2009, 40 houses and a church were set ablaze by a mob of 1,000 Muslims in the town of Gojra, in Punjab province and at least seven Christians were burnt to death. The attacks were triggered by reports of the desecration of the Koran.
Last year, Punjab province governor Salman Taseer and Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, were killed by Islamists for demanding changes to the blasphemy legislation.