ISLAMABAD, Pakistan —The heart-wrenching tale of a Christian girl charged with blasphemy could, at last, have forced the beginning of a change of attitudes on an incendiary issue that has led to the assassination of two government officials and widespread tensions between the country's Muslim majority and its tiny Christian minority, officials and analysts now believe.
The public and the court system alike usually presume that alleged blasphemers are guilty and deserving of the harshest punishment, with dozens killed over the years by vigilantes who took the law into their own hands. But the case of Rimsha Masih, whose family says she's just 11 and mentally impaired, is being portrayed as so extreme and unfair that she has drawn support from the normally conservative media, ordinary people and even some religious clerics.
This week, a prominent hard-line Islamic cleric, Tahir Ashrafi, described her as the "daughter of the nation."
Rimsha, who is likely to have had no schooling and lived in a slum on the outskirts of Islamabad, was accused Aug. 16 of burning pages of the Quran and another text containing religious verses. She was supposedly carrying a plastic bag with the burned material when a neighbor, Malik Amad, spotted her and took the issue to the prayer leader, or imam, of the local mosque, Khalid Jadoon.
She's been held in an adult, maximum-security jail since and could be sentenced to death. A court has postponed two bail hearings after a lawyer for one of her accusers raised legal issues, even though a medical report submitted last week to the court found that, at a likely age of 14, she is a minor and seems uneducated. The report concluded that "her mental age appears below her chronological age." A third bail hearing is set for Friday.
Despite that treatment, however, those opposed to the blasphemy law see some positive developments.
For the first time ever, government officials have fought back against the charge. Last weekend, one of her accusers, Jadoon, the prayer leader, was himself arrested and charged with blasphemy, accused of fabricating the burned Quran pages that Rimsha was supposed to have desecrated.
A senior government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that the government had been trying to help Rimsha behind the scenes but had been stymied by the judge hearing her case, who has been "intimidated." Thursday, the interior minister, Rehman Malik, set up an investigative team, headed by a senior police officer, to probe the Rimsha case.
"Look, this time, the mob did not attack the house or kill the girl. If you look at the way people have spoken out for Rimsha, the positive role played for the media, and the charges against the imam, none of this has happened before," the official said.
Rimsha's fate could have been even uglier. Earlier this year, a mentally disturbed Muslim man in Bahawalpur, a city in middle of the country, was accused of blasphemy and arrested. A crowd of up to 2,000 stormed the police station, dragged him out and set him on fire. In 2009, rumors of blasphemy led a mob to set fire to the Christian neighborhood of Gojra, a town in eastern Punjab province, burning at least eight people to death.
The arrest of the accusing cleric has transformed the atmosphere in Mehrabadi, the mixed Muslim-Christian area where Rimsha had lived in a squalid one-room house. The several hundred Christian families there had all fled on the night of the girl's detention. Though most of the Christians returned after a few days, they were terrified.
Now, a recent visit by a McClatchy Newspapers reporter found that the Muslims of the area are fearful and bewildered, not only because their prayer leader was taken away, but because the man who gave evidence against him was the deputy imam of the mosque, Muhammad Zubair.
"If Zubair was telling the truth, where was that truth for the first 16 days of this case?" said Anjum Hanif, a Muslim resident. "They are doing all this now to put pressure on Muslims."
The blasphemy law dates to the 19th century, when Pakistan was part of British-ruled India. But the statute was given teeth by military dictator Gen. Mohammed Zia ul Haq in the mid-1980s. Between 1986 and 2011, more than 1,000 cases of blasphemy were brought, according to the National Commission for Justice and Peace, a Pakistani Christian organization. Almost every case had flimsy or trivial evidence, and many believe even that was likely to have been fabricated.
Zia's program of Islamization started a wave that continues to see the society become more religious and rigid in its attitudes, with blasphemy a particularly emotive issue for most Pakistanis. Repealing the law, which protects only Islam, is considered impossible. Reform, however, would make it harder to bring spurious allegations.
"Reforming the blasphemy law is always going to be very risky for any government," said Cyril Almeida, a newspaper columnist.
That's proven only too true for two members of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party. Last year, Shahbaz Bhatti, the minister for minority affairs, and Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province, were assassinated after they criticized the blasphemy law. Taseer's killing was publicly celebrated by some in Pakistan, while many believe that the majority of the population approved the killing.
Few politicians see repealing the blasphemy law as possible. They note that the Pakistan Peoples Party's largely secular parliamentary majority includes the conservative Pakistan Muslim League-Q, known as PML-Q.
"PML-Q won't support the reform. Nor will the opposition. So, there aren't the numbers to get this through Parliament. It is simple as that," said a senior member of the Pakistan Peoples Party, who did not want to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Still, some see the Rimsha case as a positive development in a country where Muslims make up 97 percent of the 180 million population. They also say reform might be in the interest of Muslims, noting that, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent advocacy group, 20 of the 26 most recent cases of blasphemy involved allegations against Muslims.