On Monday, when Pakistani Muslims were busy celebrating the Islamic Eid festival, hundreds of Christian families living in the low-income Mehrabad neighborhood of the Pakistani capital Islamabad were forced to leave the homes where they had been living for more than two decades.
The Christians feared that they would be attacked by the majority Muslim community after Rimsha, a Christian girl aged between 10 and 13, allegedly burnt pages with the verses from the Koran inscribed on them. The incident took place last Thursday and Rimsha was later taken into custody by the Pakistani police.
The angry Muslims of the neighborhood, which is only a 20-minute drive from Western embassies in Islamabad, immediately demanded that she be punished for her "sin."
According to some media reports, the girl was burning papers that she collected from a rubbish pile for cooking when some Muslims entered her house and accused her of burning the Islamic text. Pakistani officials have claimed the girl suffers from Down's Syndrome, a genetic disorder causing major learning disabilities.
On Monday, the US State Department took serious note of the girl's arrest. "This case is obviously deeply disturbing," spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters, adding that the US government was encouraged by President Zardari's move to order the interior ministry to submit a report on the case.
"We think that the president's statement is very welcome, and we urge the government of Pakistan to protect not just its religious minority citizens but also women and girls," Nuland said.
Religious discrimination is widespread
Religious discrimination in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan is not a new occurrence but it has increased considerably in recent years. Pakistan's liberal sections are alarmed by the growing influence of right-wing Islamists in their country.
Rights activists complain that the Islamists enjoy state patronage, while on the other hand liberal and progressive voices have to face the wrath of the country's security agencies.
Rights organizations also point out to the legal discrimination against minorities in Pakistan, which, in their opinion, is one the major causes of maltreatment of Pakistani minority groups.
President Zardari's PPP (Pakistan People's Party) government has recently come under sharp criticism from the country's rights organizations and the West for refusing to reform the anti-blasphemy laws despite the assassinations of Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian cabinet minister, and Salman Taseer, the former Governor of Punjab province.
Controversial anti-blasphemy laws
The two politicians were brutally murdered by Islamists in 2011 because they had dared to speak out against the controversial laws, which were introduced by the military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s.
Many rights activists say they have little to do with blasphemy and are often used to settle petty disputes.
Farooq Sulehria, a London-based activist and journalist, told DW that they should be immediately repealed. "But I doubt that in the absence of a working-class struggle in Pakistan, any government will be forced to do it."
Mohsin Sayeed, a journalist in Karachi, said the laws were "un-Islamic."
“The anti-blasphemy laws should be abolished because they have nothing to do with Islam. We have been demanding their repeal for a long time. This demand has met with a fierce reaction from religious extremists, who are no more a marginalized group in Pakistan," Sayeed told DW.
He also criticized the Pakistani judiciary for its alleged sympathetic behavior toward the right-wing. "Asia Bibi is still languishing in jail, while Mumtaz Qadri (Taseer's assassin), is still alive," he said.
'Intolerance is becoming mainstream'
There have also been reports of hundreds of members of the Hindu community trading Pakistan for India, citing mistreatment, discrimination and persecution in their homeland as reasons.
Sayeed said that what used to be a small section of society had now become mainstream.
"The days are gone when we said it was a small group of religious extremists, xenophobes, hatemongers and bigots who commit such crimes. Now the venom has spread to the whole of Pakistani society," said Sayeed, adding that those who condemn such "barbaric crimes" were now a minority in Pakistan.
To prove his point, Sayeed mentioned a "hate message," which he recently received on the social networking website Twitter for raising voice against Rimsha's arrest.
"@MohsinSayeed: She (Rimsha) should be hanged before crusaders (the West) force our murtad (blasphemous) government to allow her to escape," read the tweet.
Sayeed added this was just one of many "hate tweets" he had received, and that he was only one of many activists in Pakistan who regularly received such messages.
For his part, Sulehria told DW that although “it is difficult to empirically assert" it there is no doubt that there is more intolerance in Pakistani society than before.
Author: Shamil Shams
Editor: Anne Thomas