Global Christian group takes up cause of 11-year-old Down syndrome girl facing execution in Pakistan

An international coalition of churches representing more than half a billion Christians will meet in Geneva next month to take up the plight of an 11-year-old Christian girl who faces execution under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

The World Council of Churches called the meeting to discuss Pakistan’s brutal blasphemy laws and, in particular, the case of Rimsha Masih. Masih, who is believed to have Down syndrome, has been in jail for allegedly burning pages from a book containing Islamic scripture. The case has generated international condemnation, but the fundamentalist firebrands behind her imprisonment seem immune to criticism, much less diplomatic efforts.


"This latest affair just highlights the total hypocrisy of Pakistan, and its supporters, in the Human Rights Council," Roy Brown, chief representative to the United Nations for the International Humanist and Ethical Union, said in a statement.

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are ambiguous -- except in their mandatory prescription for execution -- and, as in the case of Masih, often enforced in tribal regions at the insistence of angry mobs. Pakistan’s President Asif Al Zardari has demanded a report on the girl's arrest, which has brought protests from Amnesty International, British-based Christian group Barnabas Fund and others.

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The Council, which links 349 Protestant and Orthodox church organizations, will hold the conference from Sept. 17-19, with United Nations representatives also expected to attend. The agenda will be topped by Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, persecution of Christians and Masih’s case.

"This is just the latest in a series of similar incidents going back many years. Some cases are reported, but many go unreported," said Mathews George Chunakara, who heads the WCC's commission on international affairs.

Also attending the conference will be representatives of Pakistani minority groups which the Council says are persecuted, including Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and dissenting Islamic sects -- including Ahmadis and Shias. Geneva-based Pakistani diplomats were not invited.

Masih was reportedly attacked by the villagers in her community near Islamabad Aug. 16 after being accused by Muslim neighbors of burning verses from the Koran in a children's learning guide called the Noorani Qaida. Police took her into protective custody, but the police station was quickly laid siege to by angry mobs demanding her execution for blasphemy.

"It is inconceivable that human beings could treat a little girl, let alone one with Down syndrome, in such a brutal manner,” said Faith J.H. McDonnell, of the Washington-based Institute for Religion and Democracy. “The mob was intent on killing Rimsha and other Christians in the community, unless she was turned over to the authorities and put in prison."

When local mosques began broadcasting unsubstantiated accounts of the girl’s “crimes” over loudspeakers, hundreds of Christians fled from the poverty-stricken community in fear for their own lives.

Earlier this year, a mentally-impaired Muslim man accused of burning a Koran was reportedly dragged out of a Pakistan police station by an angry mob and burned alive.