Her name is Rimsha Masih. She is eleven years old and a Downs Syndrome child, and lives in Mehrabadi village, a slum outside the capital of Islamabad.
As a poor Christian in Pakistan, she is much like the “untouchable” caste in India. Her family earn their meager living as “sweepers,” a job one would have to go back to the Victorian era in Europe and America to find an equivalency. Not only do sweepers sweep, they gather trash and extract things that might be saleable or reusable. It is filthy, horrific work that Muslims shun.
Last week, the family’s landlord’s nephew saw Rimsha holding a burnt copy of the Noorani Qaida, a book used to teach the Qur’an to children. It is very possible that it was something the family found in the course of their work, and allegedly when arrested Rimsha had pages from several Muslim texts in her backpack. No one paid much attention to the incident, until the boy told the local cleric, Khalid Jadood.
The family’s landlord, Malik Amjad, says the cleric went ballistic and with a couple of local shopkeepers started inciting people against the family. There are reports the family was attacked and the Rimsha beaten. Mr. Amjad was the one who called in the police and turned the girl over to them. Her family fled the neighborhood, as did other Christian neighbors.
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are very strict. Any desecration of a Muslim holy book results in the death penalty. But no one has ever been executed by the state under these laws. Instead, an advocate of reforming the law was murdered by his own bodyguards and anyone accused of the crime and released by the police either ends of being killed or flees the country. The protections that religious minorities enjoyed under former President Pervez Musharraf have fallen apart in the chaos of Pakistan’s current political situation.
Senior police in Mehrabadi have dismissed the description of Rimsha as 11 and a Downs Syndrome victim, saying that Rimsha is 16 and “100% mentally fit.” Her Muslim neighbors were the ones who described her as mentally handicapped to the press.
Pakistan’s Advisor to the Prime Minister on Minorities Affairs, Paul Bhatti, is trying to sort out the situation. For their own safety, Rimsha and her mother are being held at Adiala jail in nearby Rawalpindi. Bhatti is offering legal assistance and talking with Muslim scholars for advice. The Pakistan Daily Times has reported that about 2,300 Christians have left Mehrabadi fearing the kind of retaliation and violence that has become too common in Pakistan in the last few years.
There has been an international response to the arrest, not just because the family is Christian, but because of the reports that Rimsha has Downs Syndrome. Bhatti does not believe that Rimsha will be prosecuted, but what will happen to her is still in question.
This would be one of those situations where some of those American Christians who are so incensed over the circumstances for Christians in Muslims countries actually back up their hand-wringing with action. The Masih family is clearly in need of asylum in a Christian country. Their lives are in real danger. All it would take would be a call to the State Department to offer to sponsor the Masih family to come to America. The State Department could handle the arrangements and the sponsors would pay to extricate the family and settle them in America. Obviously, this family would probably need a great deal of help, not just in terms of support, but with education and job training and placements and cultural assimilation….the kind of things the Cuban community in Miami has been doing for forty years for Cuban refugees.