Residents gather outside the house of a Christian girl, who was arrested on charges of blasphemy, in the low-income neighbourhood of Mehrabad in the suburb of Islamabad. — Photo by AP

GOJRA: For Rafia Margaret, the case of a young Pakistani Christian girl accused of blasphemy rekindled horrifying memories of the day a furious mob smashed through her front door and torched her house.

On August 1, 2009 Margaret, then aged 28, had just finished breakfast at home in the Punjab town of Gojra when she heard the announcements over the mosque loudspeakers urging Muslims to attack the Christian quarter.

Minutes later an angry crowd massed outside her modest one-storey house in the Korian area of the town baying for revenge after rumours spread that Christians had desecrated a Quran.

As the pack swelled still further and violence erupted, she ran to her roof to judge the seriousness of the situation while her mother and ailing father sought refuge in a Muslim neighbour's house.

The sight of the tall, elegant girl on the roof enraged the mob still further and they began attacking her door.

“I was terrified, so frightened I couldn't think. I thought I was going to lose everything. I don't know how I did it, but I managed to climb over to the Muslim neighbour's house where my parents were hiding,” she said.

“Just as I got there, they entered our home and set it on fire. My father had had heart surgery a few days earlier and when he went back and saw his house burned down, he died,” she told AFP, weeping.

The Muslim mobs razed a total of 77 houses in Gojra, which lies 50 kilometres (30 miles) from the industrial hub of Faisalabad and had never before seen tensions between its 495,000 Muslims and 35,000 Christians.

Seven members of a family were killed in the violence.

The terror of that day came flooding back to Margaret two weeks ago when angry crowds massed in a poor Islamabad suburb to demand punishment for Rimsha, a young Christian girl accused of burning papers containing verses from the Quran.

Rimsha, aged 14 and mentally subnormal according to a medical report, was arrested on blasphemy charges on August 18 and has been held in prison ever since.

“When I heard a Christian girl had burnt the Quran in Islamabad, I felt unsafe in my home. I thought they might come to attack us again,” said Margaret.

“Whenever something happens between Muslims and Christians across the country, I'm frightened that somebody might attack my house and our colony to take revenge,” she said.

Blasphemy is an extremely sensitive subject in Pakistan, where 97 percent of the 180 million population are Muslims. Even unproven allegations of insulting Islam or desecrating the Koran can prompt anger and even violence.

Last month a 2,000-strong mob stormed a police station in central Pakistan to seize a mentally disturbed man accused of burning the Quran and beat him to death before burning his body.

And last year two leading politicians Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti were assassinated after raising their voices against the blasphemy legislation, which includes the death penalty for insulting the prophet Mohammad.

In Korian, the focal point of the violence in 2009, newly built red-brick houses with freshly painted walls and street lights have turned the village into a model town.

But Shamaun Masih's children, who witnessed the rampage in 2009, are still traumatised.

“They always start weeping whenever they see something unusual. They still remember that violence. When they heard about Rimsha's case, they reacted as if it happened here... and they were scared of a fresh attack,” he said.

Three years on from the Gojra carnage, Margaret's house has been rebuilt along with 75 others.

Compensation of 500,000 rupees ($5,200) was paid to the families of the dead and 100,000 rupees to those who lost their homes, but the people responsible for the bloody rampage went free.

The main witness of the case, Almas Hameed, who lost seven relatives and reported the case to police, fled the country with the rest of the family.

His house was the only one of those torched in the violence that has not been rebuilt, and notices summoning him to court as a witness remain pasted to his front door.

Christians are among Pakistan's most marginalised minorities, with many impoverished and trapped in dirty, menial jobs.

The new houses built for Christians in Korian have created further jealousy among Muslims in the area.

“They mock us now, saying we have got new houses but one day they will also be destroyed,” said Khaliq Barkat, the priest of the local church.

As Rimsha goes into her third week in prison and her family hide for fear of violent reprisals, Margaret doubts Pakistan's Christians and Muslims will ever live in true harmony.

“I don't think it will ever come to an end. There is lack of wisdom and knowledge among our people. We need to learn to tolerate each other,” she said, wiping away tears.



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