By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN (BosNewsLife)-- Thousands of Christians have fled their homes in Pakistan's capital Islamabad, seeking shelter in church compounds or sleeping outdoors, after authorities jailed a Christian girl for "burning a Koranic book," an advocacy official told BosNewsLife late Sunday, August 20.
The massive exodus "of 1,000 Christian families followed the detention of Rimsha Masih, a resident of Islamabad's slum area Meherabadi," confirmed Farrukh H. Saif, executive director of Pakistan-based rights group World Vision In Progress (WVIP). "We talk about the largest reallocation of Christians from any area of Pakistan."
Rimsha herself was spending the night in nearby Adiala Jail "between adults and is being beaten for blasphemy against Islam," Saif added in an interview with BosNewsLife.
The girl, who worked as a maid, was detained Friday, August 17, when Muslim neighbor Al-syed Muhammad Ammad alleged that she torched a book with "stories from the Koran for children", he said.
Rimsha has denied wrongdoing. "The girl claims she was burning garbage and that she did not know a Koranic book was among the papers because she cannot read," Saif confirmed. "It may have been put there even by Muslims themselves, just to provoke a riot."
He said, "A huge crowd of thousands of Muslims demanded her arrest. Police arrived at the scene, detaining the girl along with others, including her mother and aunt." Saif said her family members were later released.
He and other WVIP officials visited the local police station to obtain the 'First Information Report' of police about the girl's detention, but were allegedly told they "could be killed for dealing with a blasphemer." Saif said they were able to escape from a furious Muslim mob waiting outside the police station with the help of their Muslim car driver.
The top rights activist pledged to return to the area Monday, August 20. "I am very concerned about the situation of the girl as her detention underscores the need to protect children in the constitution."
Kids as young as seven can spend years behind bars - before the courts have even decided if they are innocent or guilty, according to observers familiar with the case.
"We estimate that there are as many as 4,500 juveniles in Pakistani prisons," said Ansar Burney Trust, an advocacy group supporting various projects in Pakistan and abroad.
As news spread about the girl's detention, thousands of already impoverished Christians "are now forced to live outside their already very modest and simple homes," Saif stressed.
Angry Muslims have threatened to kill them, saying "there is no place for Christians in Meherabadi," according to WVIP investigators.
Christian witnesses spoke of Muslims setting up barricades around the area. Well-known Pakistani rights activist Napoleon Qayyum, a WVIP operation director, said in published remarks obtained by BosNewsLife that "thousands of Muslims were burning tires and ready to attack the Christians."
Saif condemned Pakistan's Christian leadership in major churches and the national government for allegedly not doing enough to help minority Christians in this heavily Islamic nation of 190 million people.
"Our Christian Minister for National Harmony, Paul Bhatti, was ready to meet Hindu leaders for their exodus to India, but not to meet Christians," he said.
"We are helping 500 Christians with food packages, but ofcourse more has to be done. We are therefore requesting supporters worldwide to lift their voice for all those who have been effected by this incident."
Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari has reportedly directed the Interior Ministry to investigate after his office was approached by the WVIP activists.
There was no official response from Pakistan's government Sunday, August 19.
Western countries and rights groups have expressed concerns about Pakistan's notorious blasphemy laws, which sparked the detention of Christians in several prisons.