x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Pakistanis flee to forest over Quran burning claim

Christians quit capital after young girl reportedly suffering Down syndrome arrested on blasphemy charge.

Pakistani Christians from a neighbourhood where a girl was arrested on blasphemy charges pray in a clearing of an urban forest in Islamabad on Monday.
Pakistani Christians from a neighbourhood where a girl was arrested on blasphemy charges pray in a clearing of an urban forest in Islamabad on Monday.
ISLAMABAD // Having fled their homes in the latest spasm of Pakistani religious strife, a few hundred Christians have camped in a forest in the Pakistani capital, cut down trees and are using the branches to build a church.
Their ordeal began when a Christian girl in their poor neighbourhood was accused by a neighbour of burning pages of the Quran - a blasphemy by Pakistani law that can result in a life sentence in prison.
A week after the girl's arrest, much remains in question: her age - 11 to 16 in conflicting reports; mental condition - Down syndrome has been mentioned; and what exactly she was burning? - there's little evidence that Quran pages were involved. But as word spread, hundreds of people gathered outside her house demanding action, and on August 20 police arrested the girl pending an investigation.
Most Christians in the neighbourhood fled - some 600 families according to one interfaith group. Some said their landlords had evicted them. A few have now returned.
One of those who moved into the forest on Sunday was Sumera Zahid, who was busy feeding her three children and her parents.
"We used to come here to collect wood for fuel, so we find it a suitable place for shelter," she said. "Here it is not anybody's home . . . Let us live here in safety."
On Monday their pastor, Arif Masih, spoke to them by the frame of branches they were lashing together for their church. "We are thankful to the Lord for this land," he said.
On Monday the All Pakistan Ulema Council, an umbrella organisation of imams, held a conference with the Pakistan Interfaith League, the group that reported 600 families have fled, and is campaigning to return them to their homes.
The two groups called for an investigation into whether the girl was wrongly accused, and what role religious extremism played in the claims. Sajid Ishaq, the league chairman, demanded government compensation for the displaced Christians, as well as protection.
The head of the council, Maulana Tahir-ul-Ashrafi, told the outside world not to interfere, saying Pakistan would provide justice for the girl and her community.