Christians living in fear in Islamabad suburb over blasphemy allegation

People who fled their homes after a blasphemy allegation sparked terror in Islamabad return because they simply have nowhere else to go

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 September, 2012, 3:55am


The Christians are trickling back to the poor neighbourhood in Islamabad that they fled after a blasphemy allegation ignited terror earlier last month. But fear still haunts them.

By Thursday, perhaps half of the 300 to 500 families that quit their homes on the night of August 16 - after a Christian girl was charged with burning pages of the Koran - 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 US$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 said they had nowhere else to go. Others remain crammed in with relatives or living on roadsides.

Mostly illiterate, Christians number two million to three 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 Koran incident has turned their lives upside down.

Arif Masih, a 49-year-old unemployed cook, and his family bolted from 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 jewellery he had bought for his daughter's upcoming wedding. They even took 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 said 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 centre of the storm is Rimsha Masih, 11, who is mentally disabled, according to her parents. They say she has Down's syndrome, but her condition is unclear. She remains in jail after being arrested and charged with desecrating the Koran.

Police yesterday won permission to hold her for a further 14 days while her case is investigated. She arrived at court for an unannounced remand hearing in an armoured police van amid tight security, guarded by heavily armed commandos and covered with a white sheet to conceal her face.

A neighbour, Malik Hammad, claimed he saw her with burned pages of the holy text in a bag she was carrying. The charges, which carry the death penalty, 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.

What remains unclear is why Rimsha's neighbour suspected her and how he saw inside the bag she was apparently carrying. Also unclear is whether any burned pages were from the Koran or another book that contained religious verses.

Blasphemy allegations are often made on the flimsiest of evidence, but mobs pressure the police into registering cases.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse