An 11-year-old girl with Down’s syndrome has fallen foul of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Should we really continue to support this anti-Christian country?

David Cameron meeting President Zardari in Islamabad last year (Photo: PA)

The British Pakistani Christian Association has posted a report of what they, surely quite rightly, describe as “a new and appalling low in the ongoing abuse of blasphemy laws”. It is alleged that a copy of the Koran “was found with some of its pages burned by Muslims in a Christian area of Islamabad – in previous cases the burning has nearly always shown to have been done by Muslims, or by mentally unstable people – and worse, they have had an 11-year-old Christian girl with Down’s syndrome called Rimsha Masih arrested and charged with the crime. Rimsha was arrested on August 17 2012.

“Muslim extremists are threatening to burn down every Christian house in the community. Several thousand Christians have fled the suburb and are in hiding, along with the family of the victim. Mobs of over a thousand Muslims have surrounded the community and are burning tyres.”

Christian human rights workers have, it is reported, persuaded local mullahs not to authorise the threatened attacks after Friday prayers. But the police are simply assuming the guilt of this 11-year-old. Some Christians went to the local police station and say that the situation on the ground is very bad. It is quite evident, they say, that the police they talked to have already assumed her guilt. They refused to allow the human rights workers to see the FIR (the First Information Report, an important document because it sets the process of criminal justice in motion. It is only after the FIR is registered in the police station that the police take up investigation of the case).

The FIR was placed by a Muslim called Alsyed Muhammad Ummad. The police were aggressive and hostile when approached, and immediately called Muslim youths to the police station to harass the Christian workers. The police said: “She has burned our holy book and you are here to protect her.” It is quite clear that the police are hostile to the accused, presume her guilt and have no regard for her status as a minor or as one with Down’s syndrome. The Christian rights workers were planning to apply for bail for her immediately after the Muslim Eid celebrations. I suspect that they have little hope of success.

This case reminded me of a report last year of remarks by the Archbishop Lawrence Saldanha, formerly of Lahore, who has retired to Toronto (a fact which tells its own story). According to Archbishop Saldanha, in the more than 50 years since his priestly ordination, his country had slid from corrupt oligarchy to military rule to mob rule.

Fear, he says, has silenced the voice of Pakistani Christians since the political murder of Shahbaz Bhatti. “People,” he says, “are very sad, very bitter. They say: ‘If that happens to him what happens to us?’ ” Bhatti’s killers remain at large. The convicted murderer of Salman Taseer, the former governor of Punjab, however (his own security guard, who disagreed with Taseer’s opposition to Pakistan’s outrageous blasphemy laws), was greeted in court with rose petals and garlands.

In this atmosphere of impunity for anyone who kills a Christian, says Archbishop Saldanha, many educated Pakistani Christians are leaving the country, and those who remain are keeping their heads down and their mouths shut. “In such a situation,” he says, “minorities don’t have much place. There’s no tolerance for other religions. Either you convert or you leave. This is the choice.” So he left. Archbishop Saldanha made his comments to the Catholic Register, a Canadian Catholic weekly.

But what about those Pakistani Christians who can’t leave? Their situation is very serious. Among the cases reported by Aid to the Church in Need since the death of Shahbaz Bhatti are these (go to this link for more detail and many more cases, and also for details about how you can support Aid to the Church in Need’s vital work):

March 2011: Three churches near Islamabad and Hyderabad were attacked by armed men, with two killed. The violence came after US Pastor Wayne Sapp burned a copy of the Qur’an.

April 2011: Islamist group Tahreek-e-Ghazi Bin Shaheed ambushed a Protestant clergyman and his family, opening fire on his car and seriously wounding the minister’s 24-year-old son. The Rev Ashraf Paul had earlier received threats and demands for money but he refused to pay.

April 2011: Sehar Naz, a 24-year-old Christian woman, was abducted and raped by a man claiming to be a police officer.

May-July 2011: Farah Hatim, a Christian woman aged 24, from southern Punjab, was abducted by Zeehan Ilyas and his brothers Umran and Gulfam and was forced to convert and marry one of her kidnappers. The incident sparked international outrage but when the Catholic Church’s Justice and Peace Commission brought a case against her abductors, the Supreme Court ruled she should stay with her new family.

May 2011: Bookshop owners Gulzar Masih and his son Suleman fled Sialkot they after they were accused of burning a copy of the Qur’an. Fr Naeem Taj suggested that the burnt pages were planted to frame the Christian businessman. “The blasphemy law is being used once more as a pretext to settle a personal score,” said the priest.

June 2011: Islamist extremists called for a ban on the Bible, claiming some passages were “blasphemous” and “pornographic”.

October 2011: Saqib Masih, a 22-year-old Christian man, was killed and 37 others were injured when a mob of around 60 extremists descended on the village of Mian Chiannu, Punjab, to claim a plot of land “sold” to two Muslims by a workman.

March 2012: Research by the Catholic bishops’ National Council for Justice and Peace showed that up to 30 per cent of Christian and Hindu women in employment have faced sexual harassment. The report also showed that 43 per cent faced religious discrimination in the workplace, schools and other educational establishments and in their local neighbourhoods.

In July, 2011 a petition with more than 6,000 signatures was presented at 10 Downing Street, calling for action to reform Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws. I wonder what Mr Cameron did about that? A year before that, in August 2010, almost exactly two years ago, President Asif Ali Zardari visited Mr Cameron. I find that on that occasion I commented in this column that “there is … one thing a British Prime Minister would at one time have said which I rather doubt that Mr Cameron even mentioned. I cannot imagine Mr Gladstone … failing to protest vigorously at the rampant persecution of Christianity in Pakistan.

“He would have gone into some detail. He would undoubtedly have mentioned the failure of the public authorities (a failure amounting to complicity) to protect the burning alive of eight people, including two children, in what Aid to the Church in Need describe as “one of the bloodiest attacks against Christians in the country’s history”. They died in August last year, when nearly 3,000 people rampaged through the Christian quarter of Gojra city in the Punjab province …. The blasphemy laws, in particular, are used to make it almost impossible for Christians to express themselves in public without appearing un-Islamic, a legal offence with the most deadly consequences. Did Mr Cameron, as Prime Minister of a Christian country, say anything (as Mr Gladstone would certainly have done) about the blasphemy laws?”

We never got an answer of course, nor, I suspect, did the petition presented last year. But there is surely one thing he ought actually to do rather than to say, which perhaps we ought to be urging on him: he should suspend all aid to Pakistan until that benighted country repeals its blasphemy laws, which have nothing at all to do with blasphemy, and everything to do with the legalised oppression of non-Muslims. Go to the link for the British Pakistani Christian Association (above), which is running a campaign to achieve this. It will be an uphill struggle, but at least it’s doing something – though it is increasingly clear that persuading Cameron to support any remotely Christian objective is probably a lost cause: something we ought perhaps to remember at the next general election.