ISLAMABAD: Christians living in the Pakistani neighbourhood where a young girl was accused of blasphemy say they are facing a bleak and joyless Christmas, crushed by poverty and harassed by Muslims.
Rimsha Masih spent three weeks on remand in one of Pakistan's toughest prisons after being arrested on August 16, accused of burning papers printed with verses from the Quran, in a case that drew worldwide condemnation.
Under the Islamic republic's blasphemy laws, she could have been jailed for life, but the Islamabad High Court threw out the case against her in September.
Blasphemy is so sensitive in Pakistan that even unproven allegations can provoke visceral, violent reactions.
Rimsha and her family will spend Christmas as they have spent the last four months — in hiding, fearing for their lives.
Her home stands empty and the festive season promises little cheer in the run-down area of Mehrabad, a warren of filthy, unpaved streets winding between tiny single-storey breezeblock houses on the edge of Islamabad.
Christmas traditionally means new clothes; music and celebrations, but locals say things have become much more difficult since the Rimsha case.
A patch of waste ground, where children play and goats nose through piles of rubbish, should be home to a Christmas tree by now. But not anymore.
“A day or two ago we were discussing how to decorate a tree when some young Muslim men came and mocked us, saying 'You are talking about it but you will not dare put it up,'” Amjad Shehzad, a housepainter, told AFP.
“Normally at Christmas we put up stars on our houses, but this year we will not be able to do this either,” he added.
Pakistan is overwhelmingly Muslim and at around two per cent of the population, Christians are among the country's most marginalised citizens. Many are impoverished and trapped in menial jobs.
“We are scared. We are frightened. We cannot sit together, we cannot speak loudly, we cannot celebrate openly. We have threats,” said Ashraf Masih, a sweeper and a father of nine, in his unheated two-room house.
“If we sit together and talk, all of a sudden the Muslim owner of the house will come and ask 'Why are you here, what are you talking about?'” Drums and a lectern are piled up in a corner — rescued from a house that had been used as a makeshift church until the neighbours complained about the noise and the landlord intervened.
He built a concrete wall across the inside of the building dividing it into two homes.
Gold paper crosses and a picture of Jesus, arms outstretched in supplication, still adorn one wall.
“Christmas is coming and we are upset. What will we do on Christmas? Every year we used to celebrate it here but now we have no church to celebrate in the area,” said Aslam Masih, a 37-year-old gardener and father of three.
His wife Kalsoom Aslam said money was also a worry.
“The atmosphere is not good and our church is closed,” she said.
“Either we pay the rent or we make preparations for Christmas.” Many of Mehrabad's 400 or so Christian families fled when Rimsha was arrested, fearing for their safety.
In 2009, in the central town of Gojra, Muslims burnt more than 70 Christian houses, killing seven, after a rumour that a page from the Quran had been desecrated during a wedding.
But Aslam Masih says most have since returned to Mehrabad.
“We are back in our houses, though some Christians have been shifted to (the neighbourhood of) H-9/2 in a graveyard, where they have some makeshift arrangement living in tents.”
Hammad Malik, the man who accused Rimsha, still believes he did the right thing, but claims he would guarantee the family's safety should they return.
“Their house is still waiting for them... I will give them written assurance that if somebody raises a finger against them, I will protect them,” he said.
“I don't know whether she did it on purpose or it was just an accident, but it was my duty to save these Quranic pages, I did that and I am not ashamed of it.”