Until last week, Pakistani Christians and Muslims on the outskirts of Islamabad lived side-by-side in peace — and in the tight quarters that come with extreme poverty.
Then an Islamic cleric heard a rumor: A Christian girl named Rimsha Masih may have set fire to pages of Quranic verse.
The girl's priest, Father Boota, says a Muslim neighbor claims to have witnessed it.
"He was the one who raised the alarm, and then there was a shopkeeper — he also started shouting, and he also started making calls, 'Get the Christians! Wage a jihad against them!' " the priest says.
Sebha Farooq, another Christian, looked out her window in horror.
"These people really thrashed the girl," she says. "They tore her clothes and beat her up."
The priest says he convinced her family's landlord to call police for Rimsha's safety.
"First it was a group of 500 people, which swelled to 1,000," the priest says. "They were trying to get custody of the girl from police, but police refused. They were wanting to stone her to death."
Rimsha is now in jail, awaiting trial. Neighbors say she's 11 years old and mentally disabled, possibly with Down syndrome. Police say she's 16 — an adult by law. But they won't let anyone see her, to sort out the conflicting claims.
A Possible Death Sentence
In Pakistan, defaming Islam or its holy book is punishable by death. The case has drawn international attention and has also raised larger issues, such as the influence that Muslim extremists have on the law in Pakistan and intolerance toward religious minorities.
Farzana Bari is a human rights expert who waited outside the jail for hours, hoping to seee Rimsha, but was turned away.
"If she's a mentally challenged child, then there shouldn't be any question of [having] registered a case against her," Bari says.
Amnesty International is also calling on Pakistan to ensure the girl's safety. Polly Truscott, the group's South Asia director, wants the government to reform its blasphemy laws.
"They're too broadly formulated, and as a result, this enables mobs spurred on by local preachers and others to continue abusing the system to settle personal disputes," Truscott says.
Most blasphemy cases in Pakistan are eventually tossed out — ruled as grudges or the result of property disputes. But this law is on the books, and anyone who criticizes that could be in danger.
There are plenty of precedents.
Just last year, the governor of Punjab province, Salmaan Taseer, was gunned down by his own bodyguard for suggesting reforms to the blasphemy law.
So police have reason to tread carefully, says Cyril Almeida, a Pakistani journalist at Dawn newspaper.
"It's really about fear, quite honestly. There's a lot of pressure going to be on the police. You may be, and I may be, seeing it from the side of human rights organizations, that they're just trying to get access and ascertain the facts," he says. "Then there's a mob, willing to gather out there if somehow they perceive that this girl is now being given a chance to wriggle out of the punishment that's due her."
Last month, police failed to stop a mob from beating to death a blasphemy suspect outside a station in southern Punjab.
Police are currently protecting Rimsha. But under Pakistani law, and depending on her true age, she could face the death penalty if convicted of blasphemy.
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