Pakistan Blasphemy Case Draws Concern in U.S. — and Criticism of Obama’s Record

The blasphemy trial of Rimsha Masih, a 14-year-old defendant with Down syndrome, exposes plight of Christians and other religious minorities in Muslim countries that are allies of the United States.

Members of the media and residents gather Aug. 23 outside a mosque near the locked family house of Rimsha Masih, a Pakistani Christian girl accused of blasphemy, on the outskirts of Islamabad.
Members of the media and residents gather Aug. 23 outside a mosque near the locked family house of Rimsha Masih, a Pakistani Christian girl accused of blasphemy, on the outskirts of Islamabad. (photo: Reuters/Faisal Mahmood)

WASHINGTON — Last month, an impoverished, mentally impaired Pakistani Christian girl was arrested following accusations that she had burned pages of the Quran. Almost three weeks later, her case has drawn international attention, with Christian leaders and religious-freedom activists across the globe demanding her release.

[Update Sept 7.: News reports today confirmed that Rimsha Masih has been freed on bail and is expected to go home today. Human Rights Watch applauded the decision: "The fact is that this child should not be behind bars at all," stated the internatinoal human rights group.]

The Vatican and the U.S. State Department have both raised questions about the plight of Rimsha Masih, 14, who reportedly has Down syndrome and faces the possibility of life imprisonment. And in the latest development in her high-profile trial, her accuser, a local mosque prayer leader, has himself been arrested for allegedly planting the evidence presented to secure her conviction.

But Rimsha’s defenders also stress that her case is no anomaly: Increasingly, blasphemy laws in Pakistan and in some other parts of the Islamic world are unjustly applied against religious minorities and political dissidents for a variety of reasons, from score settling to property disputes. Under Pakistan law, a conviction in a blasphemy case can result in a life sentence or the death penalty, if the offense involves defaming the Prophet Muhammad.

Human-rights activists, religious leaders and authorities on international religious-freedom issues have pressed Washington to exert its influence with nations like Pakistan, Egypt and Iraq that are significant recipients of U.S. aid.

More recently, the political instability following the “Arab Spring” uprisings has itensified efforts to secure the civil rights of Christian communities in Syria as well as Egypt.

Shortly after the girl’s arrest in a neighborhood on the outskirts of the capital of Islamabad, Victoria Nuland, a spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, acknowledged that Washington was closely following the case. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s state-run media reported that President Asif Ali Zardari has asked his interior minister to keep him updated on the trial.

“This case is obviously deeply disturbing,” Nuland said during a discussion with reporters Aug. 21, “and we urge the government of Pakistan to protect not just its religious-minority citizens, but also women and girls.”

Nuland said that the investigation into the girl’s actions should be presented “in a transparent way.”

But Thomas Farr, the director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University, challenged the State Department’s response to Rimsha’s case and others like it.

“Instead of calling for ‘transparency’ in the processing of such accusations, the U.S. should be working behind the scenes to empower Muslims who are convinced that the Quran does not require a violent response to blasphemy, defamation or apostasy,” stated Farr.

“Until that happens, Islamist extremism will continue to flourish in the greater Middle East, and the stability that we so desire will not emerge. In short, this case not only represents a humanitarian tragedy. It, and others like it, threatens the vital national interests of the United States.”

In the wake of Rimsha’s arrest, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, came to her defense, noting her mental impairment. The defendant, he told Vatican Radio, “is a girl who cannot read or write and collects garbage to live on and picked up the fragments of the book which was in the middle of the rubbish.” The cardinal added that the “more serious and tense the situation, the more necessary it is to have dialogue.”

Then, after a witness provided critical information challenging the testimony of Rimsha’s accuser, Capuchin Father Francis Nadeem of the National Council for Interreligious Dialogue in Lahore, Pakistan, suggested in a published interview that the young defendant may have been the victim of “unscrupulous criminals intend to wrest land from Christians and drive them out from Mehrabadi, a suburb of Islamabad where Rimsha's family lives.”

Last year, Shabazz Bhatti, a Pakistani cabinet minister for minority affairs and a Catholic, was killed, reportedly in retaliation for his criticism of the blasphemy laws. His death shook Christian leaders across the globe.

Bhatti had met with several U.S. bishops before his death, and Bishop Ricardo Ramirez of Las Cruces, N.M., subsequently criticized U.S. foreign-policy priorities during congressional testimony last November.

“[T]here is too little public evidence that protection of religious freedom is factored into major bilateral foreign-policy decisions on a day-to-day basis,” asserted Bishop Ramirez, a member of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace.

Now, the arrest of Rimsha Masih poses a difficult test for the Obama administration’s foreign-policy goals and its tense relationship with a key ally in the Indian subcontinent.

“The particulars of this case may be unusual, i.e., the astonishing spectacle of a handicapped young girl being charged with blasphemy, a child who is utterly unable to comprehend what she is accused of having done,” said Georgetown’s Farr.

“But the case is typical of a deeply ingrained problem that exists throughout the Muslim majority world, i.e., the widespread belief that anyone who insults Islam must be met with a violent response, either by the state or private actors.”

Farr found it “troubling that our own State Department’s response has been to treat this episode as entirely a humanitarian tragedy, while …  it ought also to be understood as yet another sign of a dangerous strategic threat: Until this problem is addressed, no Muslim-majority state will be able to achieve stable democracy or to overcome violent Islamist extremism.”

On July 30, in a major speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton affirmed the administration’s commitment to advancing religious freedom.

But advocates for religious liberty, including the U.S. bishops, believe that much more is needed. They have asked Congress and the Obama administration to leverage American power to defend the rights of religious minorities and address the needs of refugees fleeing persecution.

This week, for example, the administration announced it would soon fulfill its pledge to provide $1 billion to Egypt for debt relief. Religious-freedom activists would like to make such foreign aid contingent on real improvements in the status of religious minorities.

Proposals that link foreign aid to social and legal reforms may surface during discussion at a Sept. 12 conference on international religious freedom at The Catholic University of America. Sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic Relief Services, the high-level meeting will feature presentations by Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, the president of the conference, as well as Vatican representatives, U.S. government officials and scholars.

The conference will likely address a host of concerns for the Church and other religious groups, including the application of blasphemy laws. Yet Western governments and lawmakers also must tread carefully when pressing for reforms in Muslim countries because of the religious sensitivities involved.

This week, a bipartisan group of six U.S. senators wrote Pakistan President Zardari to raise concerns about the case of Rimsha Masih, while emphasizing that they did not “condone the destruction of any religious document or artifact or the defamation of any religion.” That said, they pressed Zardari to “undertake a serious effort to address these specific issues of discrimination against minority religious communities, as well as undertake reforms to ensure that the rights of all in Pakistan are adequately protected.”

Now, Rimsha’s trial has taken a new twist, with her accuser, cleric Mohammad Khalid Chisti, 30, also arrested. The arrest followed testimony from the accuser’s assistant, who witnessed him placing the pages of the holy book in the trash she was burning, while performing her duties as a sweeper.

This latest development, coupled with additional expressions of concern about the application of blasphemy laws by prominent Pakistani Muslims, is viewed as “unprecedented” by the Ali Dayan Hasan, director of Human Rights Watch in Pakistan.

But if Rimsha’s plight has provoked a crisis of conscience for some Pakistani Muslims, it has also united the nation’s beleaguered minority of Christians, who have rallied around the accused, organizing prayer vigils and demanding justice.

Paul Bhatti, a Catholic, the brother of the slain cabinet minister and an adviser to the prime minister for national harmony, has led these efforts and will continue to press for reforms.

Nina Shea, the director of the Religious Freedom Center at the Hudson Institute and co-author of Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes are Choking Freedom Worldwide, is heartened that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are under scrutiny by Muslims.

“For the first time, I’m seeing Muslim voices in Pakistan speaking out. It’s reached a head: A lot of Pakistanis are not radicals, but have been afraid to speak up,” she said.

This promising development might provide an opening for the Obama administration to encourage a broader review of the application of blasphemy laws. But Rimsha’s plight also underscores the limits of any bilateral agreement that secures commitments from a nation’s leadership but may have a limited impact on how the laws are executed by local police and judges.

As Shea explained it, the explosive nature of blasphemy accusations meant that Rimsha still faces an uncertain future — even if the charges against her are dropped.

“She has yet to be released, even though her accuser is now being investigated,” Shea noted. Based on a common pattern of “extra-judicial violence,” Shea expressed the fear that the girl could be killed by an angry mob if she were released and that “judges can be afraid for their own lives if they do release the accused back into society” — leaving the accused languishing in prison.

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.