ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- President Asif Ali Zardari has ordered his Interior Ministry to look into the recent arrest of a young Christian girl accused of violating Pakistan's controversial blasphemy law by desecrating pages from the Koran.
The case of Ramsha, an 11-year-old girl from an impoverished section of Islamabad, has again cast a spotlight on Pakistan's struggles with intolerance and with the application of its blasphemy law, which makes it a crime to utter any derogatory remarks or to insult in any way the prophet Muhammad, the Koran or the faith of Islam.
The law is often exploited as a means to settle scores against adversaries or persecute minorities -- particularly Christians and Ahmadis, members of a Muslim sect viewed by most Pakistanis as traitors to Islam because they revere another prophet in addition to Muhammad.
Ramsha, whose last name was not given by authorities, was accused of burning pages from the Koran on Thursday, though authorities are also investigating whether she was simply burning discarded papers she pulled from a trash bin as fuel for cooking, according to a statement released by Zardari's office.
News of Ramsha's alleged actions enraged neighbors, who attacked the girl's sister and mother and set ablaze several Christian homes in the area, the statement said. Several Christian families fled the neighborhood, fearing further violence.
"Blasphemy by anyone cannot be condoned, but no one will be allowed to misuse the blasphemy law for settling scores," said Zardari's spokesman, Farhatullah Babar.
Pakistan's most infamous application of its blasphemy law came in 2010, when Asia Bibi, a 45-year-old Christian mother, was sentenced to death for allegedly making disparaging remarks about the prophet Muhammad and the Koran. Bibi has always denied the allegations and remains on death row.
In January 2011, Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province who criticized the blasphemy law and championed Bibi's case, was assassinated by one of his bodyguards. That officer, Malik Mumtaz Qadri, said he killed Taseer because of Taseer's opposition to the blasphemy law. Qadri was convicted last October and awaits execution in a Pakistani prison.
Two months after Taseer's murder, gunmen assassinated Shahbaz Bhatti, the country's minority affairs minister and Pakistan's only Christian Cabinet member. Like Taseer, Bhatti also had openly criticized the blasphemy law and the death sentence that Bibi had received.
-- Alex Rodriguez
Photo: Young Pakistani Muslims pass the closed house of Ramsha, a Christian girl arrested on blasphemy charges, in an Islamabad slum. Credit: Aamir Qureshi / AFP/Getty Images