ISLAMABAD -- The Christians are trickling back to the poor neighborhood in Islamabad that they fled after a blasphemy allegation ignited terror earlier this month. But fear still haunts them.
By Thursday, perhaps half of the 300 to 500 hundred families that had run in horror from their homes the night of Aug. 16 – after a Christian girl was charged with burning pages of the Quran – had returned.
“We are also Pakistanis. We have the right to live here in peace,” said Khursheed Ahmed, 65, who returned after a week to her family’s home in the Mehrabadi district on the outskirts of the capital. “Where else would we go?”
Mehrabadi, where they can rent a tiny three-room house for the equivalent of $42 a month, is the cheapest place they could find to live in Islamabad, she said. The area is a warren of dirt tracks, with high walls on both sides enclosing little homes that are entered through steel doors.
The Christian returnees aid they had nowhere else to go. Others remain crammed in with relatives or living on roadsides.
Mostly illiterate, the Christians number 2 million to 3 million of Pakistan’s 180 million population and tend to be among the poorest of society. They migrated to Mehrabadi over the years in search of a better life, but the public outcry over the Quran incident has turned their lives upside down.
Arif Masih, a 49-year-old unemployed cook, and his family had bolted their home so quickly he didn’t even lock the front door. He returned nine days later to find it looted. The thieves took the jewelry he’d bought for his child’s upcoming wedding; they even took his kitchen utensils and a sack of flour.
“People are so afraid, they cannot sleep at night,” he said. “Christians and Muslims have been living here next to each other, like brothers and sisters, for 20 years. But now we just want to leave; we want to be given somewhere else to live.”
The Christians, who mostly have the same surname, Masih, had good reason to take flight. After blasphemy allegations were made in 2009 in Gojra, a town in the eastern Punjab province, a mob attacked the area where Christians lived, burning at least eight people to death.
Many in Mehrabadi told McClatchy that they feared something similar could happen there.
“If that girl did something wrong, she should be punished,” Arif Masih said. “But what have we done? Why are we all being punished?”
At the center of the storm is Rimsha Masih, who her parents say is 11 years old and has mental disabilities. They say she has Down syndrome, but her condition is unclear. She’s been arrested and charged with desecrating the Quran.
A neighbor, Malik Hammad, claimed that he saw her with burned pages of the holy text in a bag she was carrying. The charges, which carry the death penalty, have caused an international outcry.
An angry crowd of about 500 people gathered outside Rimsha’s house that night after an announcement about the incident from a nearby mosque.
Rimsha remains in jail, where the ordeal has deeply traumatized her, according to her lawyer, Tahir Naveed Chaudhry. Hopes for bail were dashed Thursday after her accuser’s new lawyer objected to a crucial medical report, which concluded that she is, indeed, a juvenile and mentally underdeveloped, confirming her parents’ account.