Christians Demand Separate Province in Pakistan to Protect Them from Persecution

Rob Crilly, Telegraph (London), August 30, 2012

A 14-year-old girl is being held in prison after being accused of burning a copy of the Koran and last week the body of an 11-year-old Christian boy was found in Punjab bearing torture marks.

The demand for a separate province, although unlikely to succeed, is a further blow to the ideal of Pakistan’s founding father, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, of a secular country that would be home to India’s Muslims but where all would be free to worship their own religion.

The move is the brainchild of Younus Masih Bhatti, president of the Pakistan United Christian Welfare Association, who wants a government commission on new provinces to consider the plight of Christians.

“So, keeping in view the two million Christians in the country and a sense of insecurity among them, there is a requirement for a separate province for them so that they can enjoy equal rights like the majority,” he said.

On Thursday, human rights campaigners renewed calls for Rimsha Masih, the girl accused of blasphemy, to be released after a bail hearing was adjourned until Saturday leaving her imprisoned in a high-security jail alongside murderers and terrorists.

Her parents say Rimsha is only 11 and was born with Down’s syndrome.

However, a medical report which said Rimsha’s mental age was below her physical age of 14 and that she should be treated as a minor was challenged in court by a lawyer for the man accusing her of burning the Koran.

Rao Abdur Raheem said: “If you burn me, I will forgive you, but if you burn our Koran, then I will fight a legal battle to seek maximum punishment for anyone doing this act.” As a result the judge has asked for more time to consider the matter.

In the meantime, Rimsha’s neighbours in a Christian enclave outside Islamabad have fled their homes amid fears of revenge attacks.

Some have tried to set up home in a park in Islamabad rather than return.

Raza Rumi, of the Jinnah Institute, a public policy centre based in Islamabad, said that although Islamist political parties had been repeatedly rejected in elections, Pakistan’s leaders were reluctant to speak out against abuses or push for reform for fear of being called a traitor.

“If you are known as a traitor or anti-Islam, these non-state actors will come and kill you,” he said. “Nobody wants to take that risk.” In 2010, The Daily Telegraph revealed that a Christian mother had been sentenced to death for blasphemy, a case that led to a campaign for reform of the archaic, British-era laws.

Christians, who make up about four percent of Pakistan’s population of 180 million, have been particularly concerned about the law, saying it used to wage personal vendettas or settle property disputes.

In 2009, at least seven Christians were burned to death in an attack in Punjab province after reports of the desecration of the Koran.

However, attempts at reform stalled after the murder of two prominent campaigners last year, including Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab.

Last week, an 11-year-old Christian boy was found dead in a town in Punjab. Police said his lips and nose had been sliced off, his stomach removed and there was evidence that his legs had been mutilated too.

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