By BosNewsLife Asia Service with reporting by BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos
ISLAMABAD/TORONTO (BosNewsLife)-- A mentally challenged Christian girl who was detained in Pakistan on charges of 'blasphemy against Islam' was in Canada Monday, July 1, after earlier fleeing to Norway, a Christian official with close knowledge about the operation told BosNewsLife.
Rimsha Masih, 14, "is in Canada now. She was earlier offered refuge in Norway," said Farrukh H. Saif, executive director of the Pakistan-based Christian aid and advocacy group World Vision In Progress (WVIP).
BosNewsLife, citing WVIP sources, was the first international media outlet to report in October that Masih was leaving Pakistan, though not all key officials confirmed her whereabouts at the time.
"You know people were even lying that she is in Pakistan," Saif said, apparently amid security concerns about her family.
Saif's Pakistan-based Christian aid and advocacy group had been involved in supporting the girl's safe travel in what was a secretive operation.
PARENTS WITH GIRL
"She is accompanied by her parents, two sisters and one brother," Saif explained in an earlier interview with BosNewsLife. "European Pakistani Christians arranged her asylum", he added.
BosNewsLife became aware of the trip to Canada last month but in agreement with Christians, for security reasons, awaited confirmation from Canada's Immigration Minister Jason Kenney or other officials.
Several Muslim militants have threatened, and sometimes killed, Christians accused of blasphemy.
Kenney said he had been following the case and was prompted to act when a Pakistani contact asked him in January whether the family could come to Canada.
"I said absolutely, if they could get her out," Kenney said in published remarks. "So a number of people did some very dangerous, delicate work to extricate her and her family from Pakistan, and we provided the necessary visas."
FAMILY IN TORONTO
Kenney usually declines to comment on individual immigration cases, but he said family members gave their consent to have their story made public.
The minister said he met the family in Toronto in April, a few weeks after they arrived.
Rimsha Masih was jailed in August last year in a prison near the capital Islamabad after allegedly burning pages with verses of the Koran, viewed as holy book by Muslims.
Her detention at Adiala Jail sparked an international outcry because of her age and a medical report confirming that she suffers from mental disabilities.
Amid mounting pressure, Rimsha was eventually flown to safety on September 8 after an Islamabad court set the bail of one million Pakistani rupees ($10,600), Saif said.
SIX COUNTRIES PREPARED
Norway was among six countries that wanted to help her and the family, Farrukh said, adding later that she eventually ended up in Canada.
At least some Pakistani authorities allowed Masih to leave Pakistan, after a Muslim leader who accused the girl of burning pages of Koran verses, was himself detained on charges of blasphemy.
Imam Hafiz Mohammed Khalid Chisht allegedly stashed Koranic papers in the girl‘s bag to ensure her conviction and push out Christians from the area, charges he strongly denied.
Rimsha, who can not read, has always maintained that she had not defiled the Koran. She recently said she was happy to be with her family, but feared for her life. "I'm scared. I'm afraid of anyone who might kill us." Pakistan’s Minister for National Harmony, Paul Bhatti, reportedly agreed that given Rimsha’s mental disorder, it was unlikely the young girl had "purposefully desecrated the Koran."
As a juvenile, Masih could have faced a maximum sentence of seven years in prison under controversial blasphemy legislation in this heavily Islamic nation, according to trial observers.
If she had been tried as an adult, she could have faced life imprisonment or the death penalty. "But no harm can be done to the girl now safe," Saif confirmed to BosNewsLife. Pakistan has come under mounting international pressure to cancel the blasphemy legislation that critics claim have been misused to settle personal disputes or to persecute minorities including Christians.
People accused of blasphemy in Pakistan are often subject to vigilante justice. Over 50 people accused of blasphemy against Islam and their supporters have been murdered in the last two decades, according to rights activists. Even in police custody blasphemy suspects are not safe.
In December last year, an angry mob reportedly broke into a police station in Sindh province and beat a blasphemy suspect to death. He had been accused of burning pages of the Koran.
Earlier in Ahmedpur East in July 2012, a man accused of throwing pages of the Koran on the street was dragged by crowds from a police cell and killed, after being pulled through the streets behind a motorbike. Two politicians, the governor of Pakistan's Punjab province, Salman Taseer, and Christian federal minister Shahbaz Bhatti, were assassinated in 2011 for criticizing the country's blasphemy legislation.
Pakistan's blasphemy laws carry a potential death sentence for anyone who insults Islam, with suspects often languishing for years in jail before their appeals are heard.
(BosNewsLife, the first truly independent news agency covering persecuted Christians, is 'Breaking the News for Compassionate Professionals' since 2004).
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