About 300 Christian families residing in a cluster along the outskirts of the federal capital have fled the area fearing a backlash after an 11-year-old Down Syndrome-afflicted girl was arrested on charges of blasphemy last Friday.

Though this is not the first time that a child has been accused on the basis of the dreaded blasphemy laws — which carry the death sentence — the case of Rifta Masih has drawn ire from all quarters of Pakistani society, including the more conservative sections.

Versions vary on what exactly she did to be accused of blasphemy. Some claim that she was found carrying burnt pages of the Koran. Others say she was caught trying to burn sacred text written in Arabic while another version is that she had picked up the pages from a garbage dump for lighting a fire.

As word spread around the crowded settlement, a mob gathered and the police registered an FIR and arrested the girl who is now said to be in Rawalpindi’s Adiala Jail where those accused in many terror cases including the Mumbai terror attacks are jailed. According to one version, a Muslim family sheltered her from the mob till the police came.

Civil society activists working in the area claim the whole incident could be a trumped up charge as an attempt was underway to oust the Christians residing in the area. What has angered NGOs the most is that the area police is said to have encouraged the Christians to flee the area instead of providing them protection. A few have chosen to stay behind but face further ostracism.

Taking “serious note” of the arrest of the minor Christian girl on charges of blasphemy, President Asif Ali Zardari on Sunday called for a report from the Interior Ministry. While maintaining that blasphemy by anyone cannot be condoned, he underscored that no one should be allowed to misuse the blasphemy laws for settling personal scores.

Meanwhile, efforts are on to secure the release of the girl with several organisations including the Pakistan Peoples Party Human Rights Cell, Citizens for Democracy and Women’s Action Forum calling for a thorough and impartial enquiry.

In particular, there is a growing demand to shift the child from prison to protective custody of a shelter home. While there is the general outrage over the arrest of a minor — that, too, with a health condition — there is the added fear of her being harmed in and out of prison as blasphemy accused are often subject to violence even after they are acquitted.

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