Pakistan's Christian minority outraged by arrest

September 6, 2012 - 1:44 PM
APTOPIX Pakistan Christians

In this Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012, photo, Pakistani Soraya Zafar, 30, displays an image picturing Jesus and Mary, on the wall of her home, before her house receives blessing from the local Parish priest, in a Christian neighborhood, in Islamabad, Pakistan. The plight of Pakistan's Christian minority has received renewed focus in recent weeks because of the arrest of a young, mentally challenged girl accused of insulting Islam. Christians are believed to make up two to three percent of Pakistan's population of 190 million people, and many face daily discrimination and hold low-level jobs, such as street sweeping. They often live in slums and celebrate their religion in humble, makeshift churches. (AP Photo/Nathalie Bardou)

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan's embattled Christian minority is outraged by the arrest of a young, mentally challenged girl accused of insulting Islam.

The case has shown a spotlight on Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws, which rights activists say are regularly used to persecute Christians and other minorities.

Christians are believed to make up two to three percent of Pakistan's population of 190 million people, and many face daily discrimination and hold low-level jobs, such as street sweeping. They often live in slums and celebrate their religion in humble, makeshift churches.

Life has become even more precarious with the rise of Islamist extremism in Pakistan in recent years. Roughly 95 percent of the country's population is Muslim.

Muslim neighbors accused the young Christian girl arrested three weeks ago of burning pages of Islam's holy book, the Quran, which is punishable by life in prison. The lawyer for the girl, who is reported to be 14 years-old and suffer from some form of mental impairment, has denied the accusation.

Many Christians who were living in the girl's neighborhood in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad fled after her arrest for fear of violent retribution.

In a twist to the case, however, police arrested a Muslim cleric from the girl's neighborhood after a member of his mosque accused him of stashing pages of a Quran in her bag to make it seem like she burnt them. He allegedly planted the evidence to push Christians out of the neighborhood. He has denied the allegation.

Now the cleric could face blasphemy charges. Activists and Christians are calling for the release of the girl, who remains in prison. She has a bail hearing Friday where her lawyers hope she will be freed. Rights activists have hailed the cleric's arrest as a rare victory for Christians and other groups in Pakistan who have faced questionable blasphemy charges.