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Will Plight of Girl With Down Syndrome Prompt End of Pakistan's Blasphemy Law?

Recent cases involving Christian children provoke heated debate.

Controversy surrounding the arrest of a young Christian girl with Down Syndrome on blasphemy charges may be the start of the end of Pakistan's notorious blasphemy law – at least, such are the hopes of religious freedom groups worldwide.

Today a judge delayed bail for Rimsha Masih, arrested earlier this month on blasphemy charges, questioning the validity of a medical report confirming the girl's age and mental condition. Masih's lawyer is confident she will be released on bail later this week. However, he expects the case will take years to resolve.

Masih was arrested last week, but her hearing was delayed until today after a team of medical experts determined the girl to be a minor, which will transfer her case to a juvenile court.

Even Islamic leaders in Pakistan offered their support to Masih, whose case has intensified demands by religious groups for the Pakistani government to reform the law.

President Asif Zadari has called for a report on the incident, though he has withheld support for the law's reform.

According to police reports last week, Masih burned pages of the Muslim holy book while gathering materials for cooking fuel. Masih, who has Down Syndrome, reportedly did not know that she was burning the Quran, but witnesses filed reports with the police to charge Masih for desecrating and blaspheming the sacred text.

"The police were initially reluctant to arrest her, but they came under a lot of pressure from a very large crowd, who were threatening to burn down Christian homes," Paul Bhatti, Pakistan's minister for National Harmony, told the BBC.

Last week, investigators also found the brutally mutilated body of an 11-year-old Christian boy, Samuel Yaqoob, whose torture may have been motivated by his perceived blasphemy.

Blasphemy laws have often been misused to harass or persecute Christians in Pakistan. Formally, more than 1,000 people have been charged with breaking the "black law" – as it is called – introduced in 1986. However, this is the first time the law has been applied to a minor. The offence carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.

CT previously reported on the outrage surrounding the blasphemy law, as well as the assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, former Pakistani minister for minority affairs, in 2011. CT has reported the case of Asia Bibi, the first woman ever sentenced to death under the law, and the killing of Pakistani governor Salman Taseer, who openly supported a pardon for Bibi.

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