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, who authorities have described as mentally challenged, sits in jail in Rawalpindi, charged by police 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 also because they knew she would be safer in jail.
“The one who burned the Koran should be burned,” said Shaukhat Ali, an assistant at the local mosque, expressing a sentiment shared by many Muslims in the community.
Under Pakistani law, those found guilty of defaming the Islamic prophet Muhammad face the death penalty, while defiling the Koran 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 also has been unfairly applied to the mentally ill — including some Muslims.
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, who heads the Ministry of National Harmony — a post created after his younger brother, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic and minority affairs minister, was assassinated last year by the Pakistani Taliban for advocating reform of the blasphemy laws.
Shahbaz Bhatti was the second prominent politician killed in 2011 for his opposition to the laws: Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province, was gunned down by a member of his security retinue who immediately confessed and was widely celebrated in Pakistan for defending Islam.
Christians are easy targets for false claims by accusers with ulterior motives. Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari took “serious note” of the girl’s arrest, said a spokesman, who quoted him as saying, “Blasphemy by anyone cannot be condoned, but no one will be allowed to misuse the blasphemy law for settling personal scores.”
In an interview Sunday night at his heavily guarded office in Islamabad, Bhatti said such allegations are usually leveled against the poor and the powerless. The 50-year-old physician said he has drawn no firm conclusions about the girl’s case but knows one thing: Even if cleared, she and her family can never return to their home.