(ISLAMABAD) — To some, she’s an innocent victim, an apparently mentally challenged Christian girl swept up by a rising tide of irrational Islamic extremism. To others, she’s God’s enemy, guilty of a crime so vile the only suitable punishment is death.
On Monday, Pakistani police arrested the girl, known only by her first name, Ramsha, after accusations that she burned pages of the Koran, Islam’s holy book. In Pakistan, it is a crime to utter derogatory statements or insult the Prophet Muhammad or the Koran in any way. Blasphemy convictions carry an automatic death sentence.
The accusations, made by the girl’s neighbors in a mixed Christian-Muslim neighborhood, sent area Muslims into a fury, with some police reports suggesting an angry mob of hundreds of men descended on her home, demanding authorities arrest her and charge her with blasphemy.
They then allegedly went on a rampage, attacking the girl’s family and setting Christian houses on fire. The girl’s parents are now in protective custody and, according to reports, several Christian families have left the neighborhood, an impoverished district in the country’s capital, Islamabad.
Police officials put the girl in jail for 14 days, but suggested the charges might be dropped for a lack of evidence. When she was brought to jail, she reportedly had a shopping bag filled with religious and Arabic-language papers, but it was unclear whether the papers were pages of the Koran.
Some have said the girl is mentally challenged and suffers from Down’s syndrome.
The case is drawing worldwide condemnation, including from senior officials in the United States, a key military and political ally that gives billions in annual aid to Pakistan.
On Monday, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland referred to the case as “deeply disturbing.”
“We urge the government of Pakistan to protect not just its religious minority citizens, but also women and girls,” she said.
Critics say Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are often misused and applied vindictively, often as a way to target minorities.
“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.
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have met with controversy in the past. Last year, a prominent Pakistani politician who advocated reforming the law was gunned down and killed by his own bodyguard while leaving an upscale Islamabad cafe frequented by westerners.
Pakistan’s president, Asif Ali Zardari, has ordered an investigation into Monday’s incident.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Michael Pearson and Steve Almasy, CNN
Euan McKirdy and Natalie L. Gallón, CNN
Emanuella Grinberg, CNN
Kevin Liptak, CNN