ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistani authorities arrested a Christian girl and are investigating whether she violated the country's strict blasphemy laws after furious neighbors surrounded her house and demanded police take action, a police officer said Monday.
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, where rising extremism often means religious minorities live in fear of persecution.
In Pakistan, anyone found guilty of insulting Islam's Prophet Muhammad, or holy book, the Quran, can be sentenced to death, although they're rarely if ever executed.
A Pakistani police officer, Zabi Ullah, said Monday that the girl was arrested Thursday after hundreds of neighbors, angry over reports she had allegedly burned religious papers, gathered outside her house in a poor outlying district of the capital, Islamabad.
He said the police took the girl to the police station, and that she's been held for 14 days while authorities investigate.
"About 500-600 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.
"Some Muslims from the area claim the girl had burned pages of the Quran, and we are investigating, and we have not reached any conclusion," he said.
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 no Quran.
Another police officer 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.
There were varying reports on the girl's age and whether she was mentally handicapped. Ullah said she was 16 while other officials have said she was either 12 or 11. Niazi said that when the girl was brought to the police station she was scared and unable to speak normally, but he did not know whether she was mentally handicapped.
Christians often live in fear that they will be accused of blasphemy, and many critics say the legislation is sometimes used to settle scores.
Angry mobs have been known to sometimes take the law into their own hands and beat or kill people who are accused of violating the blasphemy laws. In July, thousands of people dragged a Pakistani man accused of desecrating the Quran from a police station in the central Pakistani 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, however.
Last year, two prominent Pakistani political figures who spoke out against the laws were killed, in attacks that raised concerns about the rise of religious extremism in Pakistan.
Liberal politician Salman Taseer was shot and killed by one of his own guards in January 2011, and in March 2011, militants gunned down Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian minister in Pakistan's Cabinet.
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.