ISLAMABAD — The Christians are trickling back to the poor neighborhood in Islamabad that they fled after a blasphemy allegation ignited terror earlier this month. But fear still haunts them.
By Thursday, perhaps half of the 300 to 500 hundred families that had run in horror from their homes the night of Aug. 16 – after a Christian girl was charged with burning pages of the Quran – had returned.
“We are also Pakistanis. We have the right to live here in peace,” said Khursheed Ahmed, 65, who returned after a week to her family’s home in the Mehrabadi district on the outskirts of the capital. “Where else would we go?”
Mehrabadi, where they can rent a tiny three-room house for the equivalent of $42 a month, is the cheapest place they could find to live in Islamabad, she said. The area is a warren of dirt tracks, with high walls on both sides enclosing little homes that are entered through steel doors.
The Christian returnees aid they had nowhere else to go. Others remain crammed in with relatives or living on roadsides.
Mostly illiterate, the Christians number 2 million to 3 million of Pakistan’s 180 million population and tend to be among the poorest of society. They migrated to Mehrabadi over the years in search of a better life, but the public outcry over the Quran incident has turned their lives upside down.
Arif Masih, a 49-year-old unemployed cook, and his family had bolted their home so quickly he didn’t even lock the front door. He returned nine days later to find it looted. The thieves took the jewelry he’d bought for his child’s upcoming wedding; they even took his kitchen utensils and a sack of flour.
“People are so afraid, they cannot sleep at night,” he said. “Christians and Muslims have been living here next to each other, like brothers and sisters, for 20 years. But now we just want to leave; we want to be given somewhere else to live.”
The Christians, who mostly have the same surname, Masih, had good reason to take flight. After blasphemy allegations were made in 2009 in Gojra, a town in the eastern Punjab province, a mob attacked the area where Christians lived, burning at least eight people to death.
Many in Mehrabadi told McClatchy that they feared something similar could happen there.
“If that girl did something wrong, she should be punished,” Arif Masih said. “But what have we done? Why are we all being punished?”
At the center of the storm is Rimsha Masih, who her parents say is 11 years old and has mental disabilities. They say she has Down syndrome, but her condition is unclear. She’s been arrested and charged with desecrating the Quran.
A neighbor, Malik Hammad, claimed that he saw her with burned pages of the holy text in a bag she was carrying. The charges, which carry the death penalty, have caused an international outcry.
An angry crowd of about 500 people gathered outside Rimsha’s house that night after an announcement about the incident from a nearby mosque.
Rimsha remains in jail, where the ordeal has deeply traumatized her, according to her lawyer, Tahir Naveed Chaudhry. Hopes for bail were dashed Thursday after her accuser’s new lawyer objected to a crucial medical report, which concluded that she is, indeed, a juvenile and mentally underdeveloped, confirming her parents’ account.
As a minor she’d be entitled to bail, while any mental disability could help acquit her of the charge, because blasphemy requires a willful act, under the law.
Rimsha’s immediate neighbor, Bin Amin Masih, a security guard, said that even by the standards of Mehrabadi, the girl’s family was impoverished. Able to afford only one bed for them all, most of the family slept on the floor, he said.
“Rimsha used to play with my daughter,” Bin Amin Masih said. “She didn’t speak much. But she used to laugh a lot, which had made me think that she had something wrong with her mind.”
The case against the girl turned even graver Thursday after her accuser’s attorney claimed that the government was secretly supporting her and said this would drive Muslims to take the issue “into their own hands.”
Appearing in court for the first time, lawyer Abdur Raheem raised the specter of Mumtaz Qadri, the man who gunned down a senior politician last year who’d called for reforming the blasphemy law, which has been frequently abused.
The hijacking of the case against Rimsha by organized extremists, including radical lawyers, would spell great danger for her. It could intimidate the court and put her life at further risk even if she’s freed.
“There are many Mumtaz Qadris in this country,” Raheem declared outside the court in Islamabad, after he managed to get the bail hearing for Rimsha postponed. “This (medical) report has been managed by the state, state agencies and the accused.”
Raheem alleged that the report was illegal because it was based on the orders of a civil servant and not the court. He claimed that it also went beyond its boundaries of just determining Rimsha’s age.
In an interview after the hearing in his office, adorned with a large poster of Qadri, Raheem said: “If the court is not allowed to do its work, because the state is helping the accused, then the public has no other option except to take the law into its own hands.”
Many lawyers rallied around Qadri last year after he killed Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer in public. At his court appearance, they showered him with rose petals.
“This girl is guilty,” claimed Raheem, who’s working for free. “If the state overrides the court, then God will get a person to do the job. There is so much evidence against her, a reasonable court is not in a position to find her not guilty.”
The court will hear the case again Saturday, when bail for Rimsha could be considered again.
What remains unclear about the case is why Rimsha’s neighbor suspected her and how he saw inside the bag she apparently was carrying. Also unclear is whether any burned pages were from the Quran or another book that contained religious verses.
Blasphemy allegations often are made on the flimsiest of evidence, but enraged mobs pressure the police into registering cases. In court, the alleged act of blasphemy can’t even be repeated, as that would be an act of blasphemy in itself. So verdicts are issued without hearing the main pieces of evidence.
Earlier this year, a mentally disturbed Muslim man in Bahawalpur, a city in the middle of Pakistan, was accused of blasphemy and arrested. A crowd of up to 2,000 stormed the police station and dragged him out. He then was beaten and burned alive.
Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.