The Kalash community is known as one of Pakistan's most peaceful and mystical. Its members wear colorful gowns, practice their own religion and live in the shadows of mountains near Chitral, a tourist resort in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province.
For centuries, the Kalash community has lived trouble-free alongside their Muslim neighbors. But all that changed last week when a 15-year-old girl wandered away from her family and ended up at an Islamic seminary.
According to police and local officials, Rina showed up at the seminary and said she wanted to convert to Islam. The local cleric embraced her and started reading her the Koran. After a few hours, the cleric declared that Rina had converted to Islam, which entails reciting a pledge that there is “no God but Allah. The prophet Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.”
The next morning, according to police, Rina’s parents and other members of the Kalash tribe went looking for her. They found her at the seminary and demanded that she return home, noting she is only in the ninth grade and too young to leave her parents.
What happened next underscores the combustible role that religion can play in rural Pakistan. There often is no safe way for a Muslim person in Pakistan to abandon Islam.
The Muslim inhabitants of the area, who form a majority of the population, claimed that Rina converted voluntarily. They refused to hand her over to her parents, saying Rina was now and should forever be considered a Muslim.
A fight broke out. As stones and punches were thrown, the fighting quickly escalated into a bloody battle involving hundreds of villagers.
At one point, the violence became so intense that police began firing bullets into the air to try to disperse the crowds, the BBC reported.
“The Muslims living in the area said nobody is allowed to go back to his or her old religion after embracing Islam,” said Asif Iqbal, the local police chief. “According to the Muslim faith, if someone tries to apostate, he or she could be killed.”
Indeed, throughout history, many branches of Islam have considered apostasy a capital offense. A 2013 study by the Pew Research Center found that 62 percent of Pakistanis believe that leaving Islam should be punishable by death.
Pakistan’s criminal code makes no direct reference to apostasy, although many legal experts believe a Pakistani Muslim who tried to leave that religion would be vulnerable to blasphemy charges. The country's blasphemy law makes insulting the prophet Muhammad — even by innuendo — punishable by imprisonment or death.
Rina’s case, however, demonstrates how it is often violent mobs — not the courts — that get the first crack at judging someone’s guilt or innocence after allegations of apostasy.
Kamal Uddin, a Kalash tribesman, said in an interview last week that Rina “isn’t that mature to make such a big decision on her own. She is now willing to go back to her family … but the Muslim community doesn’t allow her and is demanding she live with them."
“We have been living and enjoying our religious affairs here in Kalash for the past 2,000 years,” Uddin added. “Both the Kalash and Muslim communities of Chitral are peaceful, but it seems some religious people provoked the Muslims not to let the girl go back to her family.”
As the fighting dragged into Friday, local authorities decided to haul Rina before a judge. During the court appearance, Rina “confessed that she embraced Islam of her own will,” said Abdul Mufttah, a police officer.
The judge ruled that Rina was an official convert to Islam, effectively severing ties between her and her family. Religious diversity among the same family is rare in Pakistan, especially in rural communities.
And in a country with no law against child marriage, a wedding between Rina and a local Muslim boy or man is likely to be arranged soon.
The Kalash tribe, meanwhile, says it is ready to move on from the dispute.
“If this was her own decision, then we will just say, ‘May God help her in every way of life,’ ” said Shamsher Khan, a Kalash tribesman. “Although her parents are grieving ... we are a poor community …we are a very peaceful community, and we will accept the decision.”
Aamir Iqbal in Peshawar contributed this report.