According to media reports, the All Pakistan Ulema Council, an organization of Muslim clerics and scholars, denounced the climate of fear and vigilantism surrounding Rimsha Masih, who was accused of blasphemy for burning religious texts and then arrested when an irate mob demanded action. The facts of the case -- including what the young girl burned while cleaning -- are in doubt, and some media reports say she has Down syndrome.
"The law of the jungle is taking over now and anybody can be accused of anything," Allama Tahir Ashrafi, chair of the council, told the BBC.
He called on the government to impartially investigate the accusations and punish the accusers if they falsely pointed the finger, according to Toronto's Globe and Mail.
"We see Rimsha as a test case for Pakistan's Muslims, Pakistan's minorities and for the government," Ashrafi told a news conference in Islamabad, according to the McClatchy news service. "We don't want to see injustice done with anyone. We will work to end this climate of fear. The accusers should be proceeded against with full force, so that no one would dare make spurious allegations."
Ashrafi's support of Masih is all the more remarkable considering his extremist ties. According to McClatchy, Ashrafi also is part of the leadership of the Defense of Pakistan Council, a coalition of Islamic groups including some thinly-disguised outlawed militant organizations.
The fact that Muslim mullahs -- even radical leaders -- were defending Masih was not lost on Sajid Ishaq, chairman of the Pakistan Interfaith League, which includes Christian, Sikh and other religious minorities.
"This is the first time in the history of Pakistan that Muslim community and scholars have stood up for non-Muslims," Ishaq told McClatchy. "We are together, demanding justice, demanding an unbiased investigation."
It should be noted that while Ashrafi and the All Pakistan Ulema Council are denouncing the false accusation of Masih, they are not criticizing the blasphemy law itself, which mandates life imprisonment for defiling the Quran and life imprisonment or death for disrespecting Islam's Prophet Mohammed.
The unusual show of support for Masih came as a government medical report revealed details of her age and mental state.
According to the BBC, the report, by a medical board of seven doctors, states that Masih is about 14 years old, "appears un-educated and her mental age appears below her chronological age."
This revelation means Masih's case will be shifted to Pakistan's juvenile court, according to the Associated Press. Tahir Naveed Chaudry, an attorney representing Masih and her family, told AP he will move to dismiss the case against his client after her Thursday bail hearing, saying there is "no solid evidence" against her. He also said he visited Masih in Rawalpindi prison, where she is being held, and that she was "weeping and crying."
A number of media outlets have reported on the ordeal faced by Masih, and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has asked for a report on her arrest. Masih's parents are in protective custody while Christians have fled her neighborhood for fear of retribution by Muslim extremists. The AP reported that about 300 Christians set up a makeshift camp in a field in an Islamabad neighborhood, even making a church out of branches where they held prayer services. But antagonists burned their church down during the night, and then the group was evicted from the site.
"We are helpless. What can we do? We are just sitting here," Naseem Javed told the AP. "They don't even want us to have a place to pray."
Even if Masih is acquitted of the blasphemy charge, her future remains bleak, as the mere accusation can lead to murder at the hands of vigilantes. The AP reported that in July a man accused of desecrating the Quran was dragged from a police station, beaten to death and set on fire.
Meanwhile, McClatchy reports that many of the Christians who fled Masih's neighborhood are asking for government land to build new homes.
"We'll never go back. We have young children. How can we go back? They won't even let us say our prayers there," Zahid Pervez told McClatchy. "We will sit on the roads, for however long it takes, until we are given somewhere else to live."
Compiled by John Evans, a writer in Houston.
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