[…] As with many other aspects of the incident, there is disagreement about exactly what was burned. Some say it was a small pocket book of Qur’anic verses. Others claim it was pages of the Qur’an. Either it was a relatively small quantity of ash carried in an earthenware dish, or it was around half a kilogram of refuse that filled a small plastic shopping bag.
Hammad Malik, a 23-year-old with a shaven head and bushy beard who is deemed a “scoundrel” by the Christian community, said he saw Rifta walking out of the tiny, single-room dwelling where she lived with her parents and sister at some time after 6pm. He said it was pure chance that he noticed her bundle.
“I looked at it but did not know exactly what it was but I could see it had words written in Arabic,” he said.
He concedes that no one actually saw her burning anything as the offence allegedly happened inside the house, and she was caught while finding somewhere to throw away the remains. However, the local mullah claims there was a witness: another young girl who caught her in the act and then ran to the mosque to raise the alarm.
One thing the Muslim community does agree on is that claims in the local media, sourced to the police, that the girl has Down’s syndrome are false.
“She is a completely normal girl,” said Kamran Khan, cousin of the Masih family’s landlord. As the largely male and grownup crowd gathered outside the house, a girl who said she knew Rifta said she did behave oddly – she talked to herself and walked in a peculiar way.
The other point of general agreement is that “the law should be followed”. Unfortunately, the law in question is Pakistan’s blasphemy law, which has a proven track record of ensnaring people on the flimsiest of evidence and being cynically used to intimidate communities or settle quarrels over money and property.
Even though no one has yet been executed for blasphemy in Pakistan, long prison terms are common – one Christian couple was sentenced to 25 years in 2010 after being accused of touching the Qur’an with unwashed hands.
There have also been cases of people killed by lynch mobs demanding instant punishment. Daring to criticise the law is incredibly risky and few do it.
In 2011, Salman Taseer, the former governor of Punjab province, was gunned down by his own bodyguard after he spoke out against the case of Aasia Bibi, another Christian woman accused of blasphemy.
The Christian community of Mehrabadi says the whole thing is a plot. They too have conflicting accounts of what happened. In one version, according to priest Boota Masih, a Muslim neighbour asked the girl to throw out the ash into which the desecrated pages had been placed.
Either way, one hotly contested incident involving a very young girl looks set to change the complexion of the neighbourhood for ever. […]