ISLAMABAD - A Christian girl was sent to a Pakistani prison after being accused by her furious Muslim neighbours of burning pages of the Islamic holy book, the Qur’an, in violation of the country's strict blasphemy laws.
A police official said Monday there was little evidence that pages of the book had been burned and that the case would likely be dropped. But hundreds of angry neighbours gathered outside the girl's home last week demanding action in a case raising new concerns about religious extremism in this conservative Muslim country.
Some human rights officials and media reports said the girl was mentally handicapped. Police gave conflicting reports of her age as 11 and 16.
Under Pakistan's blasphemy laws, anyone found guilty of insulting Islam's Prophet Muhammad or defiling the holy book, or Qur’an, can face life in prison or even execution. Critics say the laws are often misused to harass non-Muslims or target individuals.
Police put the girl in jail for 14 days on Thursday after neighbours said they believed a Christian girl had burned pages of a Qur’an, gathering outside her house in a poor outlying district of Islamabad, said police officer Zabi Ullah. He suggested she was being held for her 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," Ullah said.
Almost everyone in the girl's neighbourhood insisted she had burned the Qur’an's pages, even though police said they had found no evidence of it. One 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 Qur’an.
Some residents claimed they actually saw burnt pages of Qur’an — either at the local mosque or at the girl's house. Few people in Pakistan actually speak or read Arabic, so often assume that anything they see with Arabic script is believed to be from the Qur’an, sometimes the only Arabic-language book people have seen.
But 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.
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.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland called the case "deeply disturbing".
"We urge the government of Pakistan to protect not just its religious minority citizens but also women and girls," she said.
The Associated Press is withholding the girl's name; the AP does not generally identify juveniles under 18 who are accused of crimes.
The case demonstrates the deep emotion that suspected blasphemy cases can evoke in a country where religion Many critics say the blasphemy laws are often abused.
"It has been exploited by individuals to settle personal scores, to grab land, to violate the rights of non-Muslims, to basically harass them," said the head of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Zora Yusuf.
Those convicted of blasphemy can spend years in prison and often face mob justice by extremists when they finally do get out. In July, thousands of people dragged a man accused of desecrating the Qur’an 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 basically ended any attempts at reform.
The girl's jailing terrified her Christian neighbours, many of whom left their homes in fear after the incident. One resident said Muslims used to object to the noise when Christians sang songs during their services. After the girl was accused he said senior members of the Muslim community pressured landlords to evict Christian tenants.
But Muslim residents insisted they treated their neighbours with respect, and said Christians needed to respect Islamic traditions and culture.
"Their priest should tell them that they should respect the call for prayer. They should respect the mosque and the Qur’an," said Haji Pervez, one of several Muslims gathered at the local mosque less than 100 yards (meters) from the grey concrete house where the Christian girl lived.
"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."
"Even a 3-year-old, 4-year-old child knows: "This is Muslim. This is Christian. This is our religion," said shopkeeper Mohammed Ilyas.
Associated Press writers Munir Ahmed and Zarar Khan in Islamabad and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.