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Cold Christmas awaits Mehrabad's Christians


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Pakistani Christians (L to R) Aslam Masih, Ashraf Masih, Amjad Shehzad speak during an interview with AFP in the run-down area of Mehrabad on the outskirts of Islamabad. — Photo by AFP

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.

Pakistani Christian children stand outside their homes in the run-down area of Mehrabad on the outskirts of Islamabad.
Pakistani Christian children stand outside their homes in the run-down area of Mehrabad on the outskirts of Islamabad. — Photo by AFP

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.

Pakistani Christian children play outside their homes in the run-down area of Mehrabad on the outskirts of Islamabad.
Christian children play outside their homes in the run-down area of Mehrabad on the outskirts of Islamabad.— Photo by AFP

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.

akistani Christians play outside their homes in the run-down area of Mehrabad on the outskirts of Islamabad.
Christians play outside their homes in the run-down area of Mehrabad on the outskirts of Islamabad. — Photo by AFP

“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.”

 Pakistani Christians stand outside their homes in the run-down area of Mehrabad on the outskirts of Islamabad.
A family stands outside their home in the run-down area of Mehrabad on the outskirts of Islamabad. — Photo by AFP

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.”

Comments (16) Closed

raika45 Dec 21, 2012 02:40pm
If you had right thinking Pakistani's, this would not have occurred in the first place. You have armchair critics among the educated.
rich Dec 21, 2012 07:04am
and pakistanis claim they are being discrminated all over the world first put ur house in order and then accuse others poor minirities in pakistn my heart goes out to them, all right thinking pakistnis should stand up against these bullies
raika45 Dec 21, 2012 12:26pm
America and other European countries helping out Pakistan by giving millions in cash should instead use the money to settle these people in their countries instead of giving residential rights to muslims from Pakistan.Moreover the millions given in the past has seen no good use of the money other than Pakistan pay it's debts so it can take new ones.
Md Imran Dec 21, 2012 03:34pm
These kind of routinely published articles in Dawn is just a part of larger western conspiracy to malign Pakistan. Pakistani minorities enjoy a level of freedom that can be seldom found anywhere else in the world.
Raj Dec 22, 2012 12:28am
Pakistani Islam is so vunerable that they believe even name like "Christian, Hindu, Ahmedia, Shiate" gave them nightmare so they wanted to get rid of them. Once they get rid of them then after they will get rid of themselves. This is a vicious game they are playing and whole society is in trauma don't see it is on their door step. Wake up Pakistan before fanatics take hold of you.
Saeed Dec 22, 2012 01:36am
Finally our media tell the truth . Not Pakistani Muslims harrasing
Srichand Dec 22, 2012 03:46am
Muslims claim that Islam is the most tolerant faith. Then why are Muslims so intolerant? Why there is no freedom of religion in Muslim countries? Pakisani Muslims enjoy complete freedom of religion in the west where Christians are in majority - but they do not grant the same right to Christians in Pakistan?
Mohammad A Dar Dec 22, 2012 04:28am
No Pakistani complains about discrimination, even though they are discriminated in so called, human rights loving countries of the west, your opinion is only rich in bigot ism and very poor in truth.
Cyrus Howell Dec 22, 2012 06:25am
I like this idea.
Khan Dec 22, 2012 09:26am
You can also utilize this opportunitiny and settle along with Raika
Mj Dec 22, 2012 10:18am
Christians and hindus are more tolerant than muslims.
Raoul Ciao Dec 22, 2012 10:50am
i wish to use this forum to wish all christian families in Pakistan v happy christmas. Your lord gives you the strength to sustain in the midst of bitter enmity and hate, but some of us support you and wish all christians well. All best wishes for Christ's birthday and mayyou find peace in your religion and faith.
SM Dec 22, 2012 02:37pm
I see one "Mohammad A Dar" complaining about discrimination.
Sue Sturgess Dec 22, 2012 11:21pm
The answer is in tolerance and acceptance, not in removing everyone who has a different viewpoint. Live and let live. America and other European countries should stop giving millions in cash, as this discourages independence.
Uzair Dec 23, 2012 04:41am
Ask Pakistani Muslims about what Islam teaches and how much of what they know they practice. Then tell me if there are Muslims in Pakistan. They would make up not more than a very small minority. At max, there would be as many Muslims in Pakistan as the official minorities(4%), not more. But they all claim that they believe, so who am I to challenge who they are. This way we make 96% of the population. Though I just don't get it how can some one believe in Allah, and yet know nothing what He commands. And more than that, what little they know, they don't follow. So, the way I see it, they are not among Muslims who clearly violate Islam. They are just people, living in Pakistan, claiming to be Muslims, just to feel good about it. Just like christians think they all have confirmed booking in heaven as they say(Nauzubillah), "Jesus(PBUH) died for their sins".
Uzair Dec 23, 2012 04:57am
Kindly don't take name of religion here. We all know perfectly well, that even though countries claim to be religious, they never are. Was Pakistan a real Islamic states, these bullies would have been dealt with over terrorism charges. But its not. So you can expect anything. Muslims are expected to honour the rights of minorities and adopt a good attitude and try to educate and reason with them about Islam. If they have conveyed the message properly and yet they do not believe, they are still entitled to all their rights, Their matter now is with God. You have completed your duty. But if they do not set a good example and not convey the message PROPERLY, then they shall be accountable for it. And as you can see the state of things, you can very well judge how 'Muslim' these people are. Besides, its never an entire population that is bad. There are sick minded people in every society, the difference is if the rest of the population is doing something, or nothing about them.