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Pakistani Christians flee after girl, 12, is accused of blasphemy
A 12-year-old Muslim girl is in jail while Pakistani police investigate allegations that she burned a Quran, a crime that, if she is convicted, carries a life sentence.
The Washington Post
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Everyone in the teeming, tense community of Muslims and Christians just outside Islamabad seems to have a different story about the young girl and the Quran.
The 12-year-old Christian deliberately burned the Muslim holy book, some say. No, she innocently put pages from a nonsacred teaching text into the trash, say others, and nothing was burned.
Still another version holds that an older Muslim boy planted pages of the Quran for the cleaning girl to find, and leveled the accusation of desecration because she had spurned him.
Amid the conflicting claims, this much is certain: As many as 600 Christians have fled their colony bordering the capital, fearing for their lives, officials said, after a mob last week called for the child to be burned to death as a blasphemer.
The girl, whom authorities have described as mentally challenged, now sits in jail in Rawalpindi, charged with blasphemy, while her family has been put in federal protective custody.
The evidence against her is muddled at best, but police said they arrested her in part to assuage the mob and because she would be safer in jail.
Under Pakistani law, those found guilty of defaming the Islamic Prophet Muhammad face the death penalty, while defiling the Quran can bring a life sentence.
The case of the girl is the fourth in recent months to alarm human-rights advocates, who say the law is frequently used to persecute Christians and has been unfairly applied to the mentally ill.
Liberal-to-moderate Pakistanis see the rise in blasphemy allegations as a reflection of a dangerous ascent of extremism and anti-Western sentiment throughout society. "Most of the people consider the Christians here to represent the West," said Paul Bhatti, head of the Ministry of National Harmony.
The incident involving the girl happened Thursday, evidently while she was gathering trash — but beyond that, everything disputed. Some claim to have witnessed her and her mother burning the entire Quran. But Tahir Muhammad, a 30-year-old shop owner and landlord, said the girl found just one page of the holy book while cleaning a house, mixed it with other papers and burned it.
A 10-year-old neighborhood girl said she saw the whole thing and took the ashes to the mosque — with no pages of the Quran extant. In interviews Sunday, two men at the mosque also said only ashes remained and that the imam mixed in some pages himself before turning over the "evidence" to police.
"Somebody must be confused when they said pages were mixed in — no such thing happened," Imam Hafiz Muhammad Zubair said Monday. He said community leaders decided to turn the girl and her mother over to police for their safety.
An estimated 500 to 1,000 Muslims turned out Friday to demand punishment for the alleged blasphemer, blocking a nearby highway and burning tires.
Other Muslims, who said they count Christians as friends, said they oppose vigilantism.
However, in their view, if the girl is found guilty, then the Christians must leave for good.