ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Aug. 21 (UPI) -- The arrest in Pakistan of a young Christian girl reported to have Down syndrome on a blasphemy charge is "deeply disturbing," a U.S. official said.
U.S. Statement Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, in her daily news briefing, was asked about the arrest of the girl, a member of Pakistan's Christian minority, under the country's harsh blasphemy laws. The girl was accused of desecrating pages of the Koran, the Muslim holy text.
Pakistani newspapers identified her as Rifta Masih. Some other reports spelled her first name as Rimsha. Christian families in the area gave Masih's age as 11.
Police were quoted as saying Masih was arrested in a Christian locality in Islamabad. Pakistani media, which said she suffers from Down syndrome, reported the girl was jailed even though she could not properly answer questions.
"This case is obviously deeply disturbing, the arrest of a young Pakistani girl on blasphemy charges," Nuland said. "Our understanding is that [Pakistani] President [Asif Ali] Zardari has now asked the Interior Ministry to look into the arrest and has underscored that vulnerable populations have to be protected from misuse of the blasphemy law."
Nuland welcomed Zardari's statement and urged the Pakistanis to hold the investigation in a transparent way.
"And we urge the government of Pakistan to protect not just its religious minority citizens, but also women and girls," Nuland said.
Pakistan's blasphemy law has been much in news lately, as it provides for the death sentence for criticizing Islam or the Prophet Mohammed, or desecrating the Koran.
Pakistan's Express Tribune reported the girl was jailed near Islamabad Saturday after being beaten up by local people for allegedly burning pages from the religious text. The report said following media reports of the incident, Islamabad police registered a case against a local cleric for instigating the local people against the girl.
Paul Bhatti, a national harmony adviser to the Pakistani prime minister, told the Tribune the girl would be medically examined and religious scholars of different sects would determine whether the girl's act was deliberate or unintentional.
The report said the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party's human rights cell has expressed concern over the detention of the girl. The Center for Law and Justice was quoted as saying as many as 300 Christian families from Islamabad have fled the area since the incident.
The New York Times reported the incident has brought into focus the growing intolerance against minorities in Pakistan.
The report quoted Christian leaders as saying the accusations against the girl are baseless. It said some senior Pakistani government and police officials agreed, and said the case would ultimately be dropped.
"This case exemplifies the absurdity and tragedy of the blasphemy law, which is an instrument of abuse against the most vulnerable in society," Ali Dayan Hasan of Human Rights Watch was quoted as saying.
Minorities, including Shiite Muslims, in Sunni Muslim-majority Pakistan have long complained of persecution. At least 22 Shiite bus passengers were gunned down last week after being taken out of the vehicles by gunmen.
The Hindu community, another minority in Pakistan, has said its members are being forced to convert to Islam, and many families are reported to have returned to neighboring India.
The Times noted that former Punjab province Gov. Salmaan Taseer was shot and killed by his own bodyguard in January 2011 for seeking reforms in the law.
The Times said Masih's family were sweepers and lived in a slum area in Islamabad. Muslims generally do not accept such work.
While it was not known how Masih came into possession of the religious text, one neighbor told the Times it might have been accidentally swept up during trash collection.
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