Rescue mission to save a persecuted family
Published Saturday, March 13, 2010 7:03PM EST
In her short life, Neha Munir has survived horrors that no child should ever experience. At just two-and-a-half years old she was the victim of rape in her native Pakistan. An unimaginable crime committed because her Christian father would not convert to Islam.
Abid Hussein, the man who attacked Neha, worked with her father on a dairy farm, which was also home to her family. Neha's father, Munir Masih, said he was repeatedly pressured to convert to Islam by Neha's attacker and other employees of the farm. The attack against his daughter, he said, was payback for his refusal to embrace Islam.
Christians make up roughly two percent of the estimated 175-million Pakistanis, the vast majority of whom are Muslim. The country was created, at the partition of British India, as the homeland of South Asian Muslims. As members of a religious minority, the Masih family found themselves as second-class citizens, fighting to get medical care for Neha -- despite the sexual assault. It was also a struggle to get police to investigate the attack.
Yet, even in a country inured by violence, how could the assault of a toddler go un-noticed? Within days, a prominent Pakistani human rights activist, Shahbaz Bhatti, who later would become the country's first Christian Minister of Minorities Affairs, came to the family's aid.
Bhatti and his organization, All Pakistan Minorities Alliance, brought the attention of Pakistan's national media to Neha's attack and her family's plight. He helped Neha obtain medical care and forced the justice system to ensure that her attacker was prosecuted. Two years after the rape, the man who so savagely violated Neha was sentenced to life in prison.
Yet the trial and conviction of the attacker only triggered further victimization of Neha's family. Munir Masih claimed that at the dairy farm where he worked, the owner, a prominent Muslim, had tried to get him to drop the charges and threatened to kill the family if they did not.
Fearing for their lives the Masih family went into hiding, seeking refuge within Pakistan's Christian minority. They moved from safehouse to safehouse, all the while seeking a way to escape their homeland and to provide Neha a new, non-sectarian home.
In 2007, three years after the attack, Munir Masih met Majed El Shafie, founder of a human rights organization dedicated to helping persecuted Christians. Recorded by El Shafie's personal cameraman, Munir Masih explained why he worried for the life of Neha, her four siblings, his wife and himself: "They (the religious extremists) are after our lives and they want to kill us," he said. "Twenty-four hours we (are) under threat that any time we can be killed."
One Free World International
Majed El Shafie founded One Free World International as a human rights organization to help persecuted minorities. He too was persecuted in his native Egypt after he embraced Christianity and began an underground movement. He claims that he was arrested and jailed for agitating for Christians. He showed W5 scars on his back that he says he received after being tortured in prison. Within a year he fled Egypt and found his way to Canada in 2002. Two years later, he started OFWI.
El Shafie learned of Neha's plight from contacts within the Pakistani-Canadian community and decided he had to help the little girl and her family. What began was years of lobbying, trips to Pakistan and subterfuge to bring the Masih family to Canada.
"I gave her my word and my promise that I would get her out of there," El Shafie said, recalling his first meeting with Neha and her family.
One of the main hurdles El Shafie faced was obtaining Canadian immigration documents that would allow Neha and her family to come to Canada. Luckily, he had an important contact: Canada's Minister of Immigration, Jason Kenney, whom he had worked with on other human rights cases.
The details of the Masih family's ordeal compelled Kenney to do something that he has only done twice before, personally issuing the family a special Temporary Resident Permit to guarantee they could enter Canada and eventually apply for permanent residence.
"We can't go into every country in the world, in every unjust situation and sort of, metaphorically speaking, airlift people to Canada," Kenney told W5, as he stressed that the special immigration papers had been issued due to the uniqueness of the Masih family's situation.
"When you see a girl who has suffered what she did, when you see a family that lost all of its sense of hope and dignity, I just felt absolutely compelled to do whatever we could to help them."
With Kenney's help and the Canadian government opening its doors, El Shafie returned to Pakistan to help the Masih family escape. Fearing attack or reprisal, El Shafie says he had to obtain the family's Pakistani passports through backdoor channels and on the pretence that they would return to Pakistan after a short visit to Canada.
Even the trip to the airport in Islamabad was fraught with danger. Still under threat of death, and aided by El Shafie, Neha's family quietly slipped into the international air terminal and boarded a flight to Toronto. Only once the plane had reached cruising altitude and had left Pakistani airspace could they breathe a sigh of relief. Fifteen hours later they arrived at Toronto's Pearson airport to the delight and applause of Canadian Christians, many of whom assisted in the rescue by offering financial donations to help pay for the trip.
The family is now safe in Canada but the situation in Pakistan remains tense. Recently, as Pakistan has become embroiled in the war against terror -- pitting pro-Taliban elements against the government -- minorities have been targeted as allies of the West and, in particular, the United States.
"This is a country which is at war with religious extremism," said Sahebzada Khan, Pakistan's Consul General in Toronto, who acknowledges his country faces a serious problem. "These religious extremists are not just killing minorities, they are killing our way of life."
For the moment though, Neha and her family have escaped the persecution, the violence and the death threats. One Sunday morning they attended church at the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship, welcomed by their Canadian Christian brethren, many of whom helped finance the Masih family's rescue and escape.
No longer having to live their lives in the shadows, Neha and her family are embracing their new lives in Canada, where they can practice their religion without fear of persecution or retaliation.