Christians in Mehrabad afraid after blasphemy arrest

Mehrabad has been home to a Christian community for 20 years, Muslims helped them build a church less than a year ago.

Afp August 23, 2012

ISLAMABAD: A week after a young Christian girl was arrested on blasphemy charges in a poor suburb of Islamabad, her fellow believers fear they may have celebrated their last service in the area.

Mehrabad, on the outskirts of the capital, has been home to a Christian community for 20 years, and less than a year ago Muslims helped them build a simple church.

But last Thursday local Muslims erupted in fury after Rimsha, a young Christian girl who reportedly has Down's Syndrome, was accused of burning pages from a children's religious instruction book containing verses from the Holy Quran.

Neighbours accused her of blasphemy, a grave crime in the Islamic republic, where 97% of the population is Muslim and the tiny Christian minority has long suffered poverty and discrimination.

The imam of the local mosque heard of the incident on the same day and led a furious crowd of dozens of Muslims to the girl's family home, witnesses said. Police intervened and took Rimsha, who is aged between 11 and 16, into custody for 14 days on blasphemy charges.

Memories are still fresh of an incident in 2009 in Gojra, also in Punjab province, when young Muslim radicals burned around 40 Christian houses, killing seven, after a rumour that a page from the Holy Quran had been desecrated during a wedding.

Last Thursday's events sent a chill wind of fear through the 500 Christian families who live in Mehrabad, where motorbike tracks furrow the puddle-dotted streets between monochrome concrete houses.

"Some people ran away straight after the incident because they were afraid the Muslims would react like they did in Gojra," said Rafaqet Masih, 42, whose wife and five children fled the area.

There were few indications that tensions were about to erupt in Mehrabad, where barely seven months ago Muslims helped the local Christians build their church, a small nondescript building tucked away in a maze of streets.

Believers were given permission to hold services in the building - which bears no visible clue that it is a house of worship - only on Sundays.

But music coming from inside during services began to annoy Muslims praying at the same time, locals said, and a week before the incident involving Rimsha they demanded it be closed.

The Christians have continued to meet but did not hold a service on Sunday to avoid stoking tensions while trying to reach a negotiated solution to the crisis. In the meantime they fear for the future.

"If we can't pray here any more, we'll have to leave the area," Ashraf Masih told AFP at the door of his modest home.

Some Muslims were keen to distance themselves from the fury surrounding Rimsha and demands for the Christians to leave.

The Christians rent their homes - and the building they use as a church - from Muslim landlords, who would lose out in the event of an exodus.

"I don't want them to leave," said Mohamed Mehtab Awan, a Muslim who rents around 30 run-down shacks to Christians. Malik Amjad, the owner of Rimsha's family home, agreed.

Rimsha's case has prompted concern from Western governments and anger from rights groups, who say the blasphemy law is abused in personal disputes and should be reformed.