ISLAMABAD: A cleric who handed over a young Christian girl to police on blasphemy charges after she burned papers containing Quranic verses said Friday what she did was a "conspiracy" to insult Muslims.
Hafiz Mohammed Khalid Chishti, the imam of the mosque in the Islamabad suburb of Mehrabad, insisted he had saved the girl, Rimsha, from mob violence by handing her to police but said the incident arose because Muslims had not stopped local Christians' "anti-Islam activities" earlier.
Rimsha was arrested and remanded in custody for a fortnight last Thursday after being accused of burning pages from a children's religious instruction book, which were inscribed with verses from the Muslim holy text.
The youngster reportedly has Down's Syndrome and her treatment has prompted outrage from rights groups and concern from Western governments, but Chishti insisted she was fully aware of what she was doing.
"The girl who burnt the Holy Quran has no mental illness and is a normal girl," Chishti told AFP.
"She did it knowingly, this is a conspiracy and not a mistake. She confessed what she did."
Chishti claimed the local Christian community had previously caused antagonism by playing music in services at their makeshift church during Muslim prayer time and said burning the pages was deliberate.
"They committed this crime to insult us further. This happened because we did not stop their anti-Islam activities before," he said.
"Last Christmas, they played musical instruments and there was vulgarity in the streets during our prayers time. I warned them but they did not stop."
During his sermon at Friday prayers Chishti told worshippers it was "time for Muslims to wake up" and protect the Holy Quran.
Mehrabad is home to around 500 Christian families but many fled after the page-burning, fearing a repeat of a 2009 incident in Gojra, in which young Muslim radicals burned Christian houses, killing seven, after a rumour that a page from the Holy Quran had been desecrated during a wedding.
Chishti said that on the day of the incident he went to Rimsha's home after people showed him the papers she had burned, and he found an angry crowd outside and three or four Muslim women attacking her.
"Some women were beating her and other people were trying to break her arms when I rescued her," he said.
Chishti said the girl confessed to burning the pages and insisted he had averted major violence by handing her over to police.
"People were demanding to burn their house, but I went to police and called them to avoid a major incident," he said.
"I had the Gojra incident in my mind, when Muslims burnt the whole Christians' colony. I did not want to repeat that."
Police have registered a case against more than 150 people for damaging property during the protest after the incident but Chishti insisted nobody from the area was involved.
"I did not invite people to protest against the Christians. The people who protested against the incident were from some other area," he said.
"The cleric who announced on loud speaker was also from another mosque and he did it outside this village. We have no link to that."
Rimsha had been due to appear in court to answer charges on Saturday, but investigating police officer Zabihullah and Rimsha's lawyer Tahir Naveed Chaudhry said the hearing was now expected on August 31.