ISLAMABAD — Pakistani authorities have arrested a young Christian girl after hundreds of furious neighbors gathered outside her house and accused her of violating the country's strict blasphemy laws by burning pages of the Muslim holy book, police and neighbors said Monday. The girl's age was not immediately clear, with reports ranging from 11 to 16, and some have raised the possibility she might be mentally handicapped.
Under Pakistan's blasphemy laws, anyone found guilty of insulting Islam's Prophet Muhammad or defiling the holy book, or Quran, can face life in prison or even execution. The laws have been an ongoing source of controversy even though those convicted are rarely executed. Rising extremism in the country often means religious minorities live in fear of persecution and accusations of blasphemy.
The latest case exploded on Thursday, when neighbors angry over rumors a Christian girl had allegedly burned a Quran gathered outside her house in a poor outlying district of the capital, Islamabad, said police officer Zabi Ullah. He said the police took the girl to the police station and she is being held for 14 days while authorities investigate the allegations. Several police officers suggested she may also be being held for her own protection.
"About 500 to 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," he said. The crowd demanded that the police take action against the girl. Another police official, Qasim Niazi, said when the girl was brought to the police station, she had a shopping bag that contained various religious and Arabic-language papers that had been partly burned, but there was no Quran among the papers.
Muslim residents of the neighborhood insisted they treat their Christian neighbors with respect, and that while some Christians had left out of fear immediately following the incident on Thursday, most had returned. Christians in the neighborhood were reluctant to talk, but many said their landlords had told them they had to leave their rented houses by the end of the month.
Much of the case has been clouded by confusion. And in a sign of how easily rumor can trump truth in Pakistan, almost everyone in her neighborhood insisted she had burned the Quran, even though police said they had found no evidence of it. Some residents claimed they actually saw burnt pages of Quran — either at the local mosque or at the girl's house — and their statements were picked up in the Pakistani media.
One police officer familiar with the girl's case said the matter would likely be dropped once the investigation is completed and the atmosphere is defused, saying there was "nothing much to the case." He did not want to be identified due to the sensitivity of the case.
Some human rights officials and media reports said the girl was mentally handicapped.
A spokesperson for Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, Farhatullah Babar, said the president has taken "serious note" of reports of the girl's arrest and has asked the Interior Ministry to look into the case.
The arrest of the girl and outrage among the local community demonstrates the deep emotion that suspected blasphemy cases can evoke in this conservative Muslim country. But many critics say the blasphemy laws are also sometimes used to settle scores and exact revenge.
Those convicted of blasphemy can spend years in prison and often face mob justice by extremists when they finally do get out.
Angry mobs have been known to sometimes take the law into their own hands and beat or kill people accused of violating the blasphemy laws. In July, thousands of people dragged a man accused of desecrating the Quran from a police station in the central city of Bahawalpur, beat him to death and then set his body on fire.
Attempts to revoke or alter the blasphemy laws have been met with violent opposition. Last year, two prominent political figures who spoke out against the laws were killed in attacks that further raised concerns about the rise of religious extremism in the country.
In the neighborhood where the incident happened, all the residents were convinced the girl had desecrated the holy book. One possible explanation for the confusion is that few people in Pakistan actually speak or read Arabic so anything with Arabic script on it is often believed to be from the Quran, sometimes the only Arabic-language book people have ever seen.
Some Muslims gathered Monday at the local mosque less than a hundred yards (meters) from the grey concrete house where neighbors said the Christian girl and her family live. They said the Christians in this mixed neighborhood needed to respect the Islamic traditions and culture.
"Their priest should tell them that they should respect the call for prayer. They should respect the mosque and the Quran. This is what should have happened. We are standing in the house of God. This incident has happened and it is true. It was not good," said one Muslim man, Haji Pervez.
Though no one knew the girl's exact age, the possibility that she could be as young as 11 did not faze the angry neighbors.
"Even a 3-year-old, 4-year-old child knows: "This is Muslim. This is Christian. This is our religion," said Mohammed Ilyas, a shopkeeper in the neighborhood.
Associated Press writers Munir Ahmed and Zarar Khan contributed to this report.