Vatican defends child with Down syndrome accused of burning Quran

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The head of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue has voiced support for a Christian girl with Down syndrome in Pakistan, who was arrested for allegedly burning pages of the Quran.

In an interview with Vatican Radio on Aug. 25, Cardinal Jean Louis Tauran said the child, Rimsha Masih, “does not know how to read or write.” 

“Before asserting that a sacred text was the target of ridicule, the facts should be verified,” he said.

Reports from some humanitarian organizations in the region said the girl unintentionally burned the pages because they were mixed in with a pile of trash she collected to make a fire for cooking. Neighbors allegedly burst in to her home and accused her and her family of burning the Quran.

Some describe the girl from Islamabad as a teenager, while others say she could be as young as 11 years old.

Qasim Niazi, a local Pakistani police official, told CNN nearly 150 people gathered in the Christian neighborhood on Friday threatening to burn their homes. “The mob wanted to burn the girl in order to teach her a lesson,” he said.

Cardinal Tauran pointed out that the child “does not know how to read or write and collects trash in order to make a living, and the pages from this book were in the trash that she was collecting.”

“The more the situation worsens and intensifies, the more dialogue is needed. It seems impossible that a child could show scorn for the sacred book of Islam,” the cardinal said.

This is not the first time the Vatican has spoken out on such a case. The Holy See has also called for the release of Asia Bibi, a Catholic mother of five in Pakistan who remains imprisoned for allegedly violating the country’s blasphemy laws. She has been given a death sentence despite her insistence that she is innocent.

Her hopes for getting released from prison diminished significantly after the murders of the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, and the Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, who was Catholic. Both officials offered to help Bibi.

Protests have been held in Pakistan and Europe calling for the release of Masih, whose case will go before a judge on Aug. 28. 

Pakistanis living in Italy have prepared a petition they will send to President Asif Ali Zardari calling for the girl’s release.

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