Setback in Rimsha Masih case

Three witnesses whose testimony could absolve a 14-year-old Pakistani girl facing life in prison have changed their statements.

According to a story by Reza Sayah and Nasir Habib, for CNN, it's the latest twist in the case of Rimsha Masih, a Christian teenager who was charged more than a month ago under Pakistan's blasphemy laws for allegedly burning pages of Islam's holy book for cooking fuel. She has denied the charges.

CNN reported the three witnesses initially told police they saw Khalid Jadoon Chishti, a Muslim cleric, tear pages out of a copy of the QKoran and put them with police evidence that led to the charges against Rimsha.

But they recanted those statements on Monday at a bail hearing for the cleric, according to the imam's lawyer, Wajid Ali Gilani. A fourth witness stood by his initial statement.

CNN said the witnesses are a critical part of the police investigation that determined last week that the imam framed the teen. Based on that investigation and a lack of witnesses, her lawyers are now appealing to have the blasphemy charges dismissed.

Meanwhile, a blog posting by Wilson Chowdhry, chairman of the British Pakistani Christian Association (BPCA) said the judge presiding over Monday's hearing in Islamabad High Court has now extended the stay on Masih's trial until October 17.

CNN said the teen's case has sparked international outcry against the Pakistani government, with some saying the blasphemy laws are used to settle scores and persecute religious minorities.

Meanwhile, BPCA said, extremists already incensed by the anti-Islam video that has caused huge violent riots in Pakistan, look set to continue targeting Christians (seen as easy targets) for a series of violent attacks.

For example, BPCA said, a church was razed to the ground and 27 homes looted and levelled in an attack on a Christian community in Mardan. Nuns who helped initiate and joined the first protest against the anti-Islam video in a show of solidarity, were shot at and their driver injured, A pastor has been beaten and told that all Christians will suffer a similar fate.

Talking in his blog about the three witnesses changing their statements Chowdhry wrote, "They initially stood bravely to condemn the actions of a rogue imam and have now created a hornets nest of hatred towards the very Christians they initially chose to protect."

He added, "News of this withdrawal will embitter Muslims against Christians who though completely innocent, will be targeted by extremists. In previous instances police have failed to react to localised riots and skirmishes that have led to major attacks on defenceless communities.

"Pakistani authorities need to ensure that security services are in constant communication with key Christian figures, so that rapid deployment of resources can prevent incident escalation."

Chowdhry concluded, "This is an anxiety-ridden time to be a Christian in the Islamic world, no more so than in Pakistan. I call on humanitarians of all faiths and diversities to pray for peace, and to call for stronger protection for these victims via the Pakistani authorities."

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