A young Christian girl, Rimsha Masih, has been arrested and her family placed under protective custody after a Muslim mob in a poor part of Islamabad threatened to set her alight for allegedly burning pages of the Koran.
Nine hundred Christians living in the slum neighbourhood, where they have lived for almost two decades, have been forced to leave. A local Mullah told reporters: “We are not upset the Christians have left and we will be pleased if they don't come back. They have done this to provoke the Muslims, like they have with their noisy banging and singing from their churches.”
A large group of bigots had surrounded the police station and blocked major roads demanding Masih be charged under the state’s blasphemy law.
Islam is the state religion of Pakistan, and although the country’s blasphemy law is supposed to uphold offences against all religions, it is used disproportionately against non-Muslims. Over 95% of Pakistanis are Muslim, but 50% of cases are brought against non-Muslims.
This law is draconian. The penalty for damaging a copy of the Koran is life in prison. A Christian couple was sentenced to 25 years in 2010 after being accused of touching the Koran with unwashed hands.
Someone convicted of denigrating Muhammad can be sentenced to death. Although the death penalty has not been carried out, at least 20 people who have been accused of blasphemy have been murdered.
Last month, in southern Pakistan a man accused of blasphemy was dragged from a police cell and burnt alive by an angry crowd.
In January 2011 Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab, was murdered by his bodyguard because he supported Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death under the law (her case is still going through higher courts).
In March 2011, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic, and a People’s Party politician and Minister of Minority Affairs, was also assassinated for his support of Asia Bibi and his prominent opposition to the blasphemy law.
Religious intolerance is increasing in Pakistan. Last week, gunmen executed 25 Shiites after taking them off a bus near Mansehra, north of Islamabad.
On Saturday, Hindu leaders in Sindh, in the south of Pakistan, called on the government to protect their community from forced conversions by Muslim extremists.