Margrett Ghafoor, a Christian teacher in majority-Muslim Pakistan, says her lesson for the children she teaches has always been the same.
“My message is for everyone to broaden their minds, and ignore petty matters,” says the 53-year-old mother of two. “Let’s live together in peace.”
Ghafoor has always felt free and safe when attending church services and practicing her religion, despite living in a country where at least 95 percent of the population is Muslim.
But her Christian community in Rawalpindi — a sprawling suburb of the capital city of Islamabad — has been anything but peaceful since the Aug. 16 arrest of a young Christian girl named Rimsha Masih.
Rimsha was jailed under the country’s strict blasphemy laws for allegedly burning pages from a book containing Muslim scripture. She is currently in police custody, being examined by medical and psychological professionals.
There have been conflicting reports on Rimsha’s age and her mental state. Some media have said she suffers from Down syndrome and is aged 11. Her lawyer Masih’s lawyer, Tahir Naveed Chaudhry, reportedly said Tuesday that a medical board had determined she was between 13 and 14 and that her mental state did not correspond with her age. However, he said that it was “not clear whether that meant she was mentally impaired.”
Ghafoor, one of 6,000 Christians living in this neighborhood, said the case has sent ripples of tension and insecurity through her community. She is now concerned about what her 13-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son may face in a divided community pushed further apart by the case.
“I am worried about the future of my children if this situation persists,” Ghafoor. “And I am very worried even if she [Rimsha] is released, she is not safe here.”
Following Rimsha’s arrest, news of her alleged crime spread rapidly through the local Muslim community.
People enraged by the accusations gathered at the police station, demanding the girl be turned over to them, so she could be burned alive.
Islamabad Police Inspector-General Bani Amin said officials were “concerned about her safety,” after “800 people gathered to block the road.”
He said Rimsha has been kept in “protective custody, for her own safety.”
There is precedent in Pakistan for the sort of extrajudicial killing Rimsha appears to have narrowly escaped.
In June of this year, a man in Bahawalpur, in Punjab province, was accused of burning a copy of the Quran.
He was arrested and held by police, but thousands of angry people attacked the police station, overwhelming local authorities. The mob reportedly dragged the man to the spot where the alleged crime occurred, beat him, and killed him by setting him on fire.
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