Until the Canada Day weekend, it was a closely-guarded secret in Ontario’s Pakistani émigré community that Rimsha Masih, the Christian girl whose entrapment in Pakistan’s barbaric blasphemy laws captured headlines around the world last year, was living incognito with her family in Canada.
While much of Rimsha’s harrowing saga can now be told, her story is just one small drama in a much larger and necessarily untold story involving scores — sometimes hundreds — of people who are secreted into Canada every year.
In the case of 13-year-old Rimsha, it was only after she was recognized at a Mississauga shopping mall and a Toronto-based advocacy group confirmed the basic facts of the case last week that her parents consented, on Saturday, to allow Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney to speak publicly about the story.
“There was no point in denying it by then. It was becoming a known fact in the community,” Kenney told me on Sunday. “This was being dealt with in extreme discretion. I don’t want to be too dramatic about this, but they’ve had targets painted on their backs for the better part of a year.”
While Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are an outrage against international human rights norms, Rimsha’s case was especially notorious. Initial reports described Rimsha as a child with Down’s Syndrome who stood accused of having burned a Koran, and the proceedings against her almost immediately revealed that she’d been framed by a fanatical Muslim cleric, a neighbour with a grudge against the family.
Blasphemy allegations targeting Pakistan’s tiny Christian community sometimes fail to produce convictions, but they rarely fail to provoke lynch-mob violence, pogroms and assassinations. The Masih family had “gone underground” last September, and even though a November high court ruling ordered a dismissal of the charges against Rimsha, whose disability involves a slight intellectual impairment, the death threats persisted.
After furtive contacts between Ottawa and the family’s protectors in Pakistan and a series of expedited deliberations at the Canadian High Commission in Islamabad, Rimsha, her parents and her three siblings arrived in Canada March 13. Rimsha’s parents are Misrak and Mariyam Masih, her sisters are Rubacca, 15 and Cloudia, 10, and her brother is Anosh, 8.
The family is receiving some assistance via the refugee assistance program, to help them through their first year in Canada. They are also being helped by the Pakistani-Canadian Christian community, Kenney said. The family is living somewhere in the Greater Toronto Area, “which is all we’re going to say.”
But there is also a great deal more that Kenney concedes he cannot say about several cases he handles every year that involve people whose lives are as imperilled as Rimsha Masih’s was. These newcomers sometimes arrive individually and sometimes in large groups, about once a month, via the same under-the-radar provision of the Department of Citizenship and Immigration Act that brought the Masih family to Canada.
Used exclusively in the most extraordinary cases and when a life is clearly at stake, the discretionary ministerial permits couple temporary resident permits with instructions to department officials to quickly process applications for permanent residence on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.
The practice is perilous. Just one dilemma, Kenney said, is the necessary secrecy. “There are things going on that we just don’t talk about. There are certain countries where, if it came out what we were doing, in doing things like this, there would be more than just protests.”
The immigration system’s underpinnings are also at stake in these decisions.
“If there are no normal parameters, then our system just completely breaks down. But when we hear of clearly extraordinary cases, when someone is clearly facing imminent death, we do everything we can to get them permission to come to Canada,” Kenney said. “We just generally don’t talk about it.
“We do a lot of these cases, like gays facing imminent death in places like Yemen and elsewhere. We don’t want to give the false impression that exceptions are the rule. They’re not. But there is, let’s face it, a great range of risk that people face. I tend to only exercise this discretionary authority when we are absolutely certain that it is a question of life and death.”
The last time a ministerial intervention of this particular kind attracted public attention was in December, 2009. That case also involved Pakistani Christians. The Munir family was in hiding and under threat of death for refusing to convert to Islam. The family’s case, taken up by the activist group One Free World International, was particularly horrific because it involved the rape of one of the Munir children, a two-year-old girl.
In the case of Rimsha Masih and her family, there was no question to Kenney that it was a matter of life and death. Roughly 1,000 people have been swept up by Pakistan’s blasphemy laws since 1986, more than half of them during past five years. Kenney said he was already “acutely aware” of the mortal threats involved, not least because of the Pakistani Taliban’s March 2011 assassination of his friend Shabaz Bhatti, the crusading Pakistani MP who was an outspoken opponent of Islamabad’s blasphemy laws.
Bhatti’s brother Peter, president of the Toronto-based International Christian Voice, was instrumental in developing the lines of communication between Ottawa and the Masih family in Islamabad. Peter Bhatti has also taken a leading role in helping the family settle in the Toronto area.
Kenney said that when he was first approached about finding a way to get the Masih family out of Pakistan, he didn’t hesitate. “I said of course we would. Her family was living underground in a safe house for several months. From the moment she was released from prison she was still living under multiple death threats,” Kenny said.
“The folks I was working with to keep Rimsha Masih in that safe house were literally risking their lives to do so, and that’s why all of this transpired with great discretion.”
To come to the aid of a person accused of blasphemy in Pakistan is to take one’s life into one’s hands. In January, 2011, Punjab provincial governor Salmaan Taseer was assassinated by a member of his own security team for having taken up the cause of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death by hanging in 2010 for an act of blasphemy that she denies committing. Bibi’s case is under appeal.
Getting Rimsha Masih’s family spirited out in Pakistan was a slow and dangerous process.
“It took some time because of the danger for them to procure passports for her and her family,” Kenney said, “but as soon as that happened we ensured that our High Commission processed permits for them to come to Canada.”
Source: Ottawa Citizen