Once again, alleged blasphemy in Pakistan nearly led to the death of the accused by angry locals.
This time a young Christian girl reportedly gathered up some papers use for cooking fuel in a poor Islamabad neighborhood last week. Word quickly spread that some of those papers -- which were trash in the first place -- might have had religious writing on them. The girl's home was quickly surrounded by a mob, egged-on by a local imam who wanted to burn the girl alive.
Pakistani police confirmed Monday they have the girl in custody after angry locals in a neighborhood of Islamabad caught wind of rumors she either burned pages of the Islamic holy book or papers with Quranic verses written on them. Details are murky, but one thing is clear -- had it not been for the girl's arrest, she might not be alive today.
Either desecration is potentially a capital crime in this predominantly Muslim county with strict blasphemy laws. While death or imprisonment by the state for such crimes is rare, being accused of blasphemy is a life-threatening situation, especially among Pakistan's religious minorities.
An officer seemed to suggest that the girl was detained in part for her own protection. Some reports say she was beaten before police could get to her. One local imam demanded the girl be turned over to the mob to be set on fire in a local square, according to local press reports.
"About 500-600 people had gathered outside her house in Islamabad, and they were very emotional, angry and they might have harmed her if we had not quickly reacted," the officer Zabi Ullah told the Associated Press." Some Muslims from the area claim the girl had burned pages of the Quran, and we are investigating, and we have not reached any conclusion."
The police confirmed that the girl had a bag of partially burned papers, including some papers of a religious nature, but not pages from the Islamic holy book.
"The mob wanted to burn the girl to give her a lesson," local police chief Qasim Niazi told CNN.
Details of the incident vary. Niazi said 150 people had surrounded the girl's home, threatening to raze it as punishment. The girl was identified in the local media as 11-year-old Rifta Masih of Mehrabadi village. Other reports say her name is Rimsha Masiah. Some reports say she has Down syndrome.
According to a Express Tribune study, 18 blasphemy cases, three life sentences, one death sentence and several incidences of harassment, which include vigilante beatings, were reported in the local press in the first six months of 2011.
On Sunday, Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari stepped into the fray after reports that Christian families were fleeing the neighborhood out of fear of being targeted following the incident. He ordered his Interior Ministry to investigate.
"Blasphemy by anyone cannot be condoned, but no one will be allowed to misuse the blasphemy law for settling scores," said a spokesman for the president, according to AFP.
The Geneva-based U.N. Watch has called on Zardari to repeal the country's strict blasphemy law, but the law has wide support among the country's majority Muslim conservatives. Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer led a campaign to repeal the law. He was assassinated in January after championing the case of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who languishes in prison after allegedly defiling the name of Prophet Muhammad in 2009 after fruit-picking co-workers accused her of contaminating a well reserved for Muslims only.
Approximately 5 percent of Pakistanis are non-Muslims, according to the CIA World Factbook.