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ISLAMABAD – Having fled from their homes in the latest spasm of Pakistani religious strife, a few hundred Christians have camped in a forest in this capital city, cut down trees and are using the limbs and branches to build a church.
Their ordeal began when a Christian girl from their poor neighborhood in Islamabad was accused by a neighbor of burning pages of the Quran – a blasphemy under Pakistani law that can mean life in prison.
A week after the girl's arrest, much remains in question: her age (11 to 16 in conflicting reports), her mental condition (Down syndrome has been mentioned) and what exactly she was burning. There is little evidence that pages of the Quran were involved.
But as word spread, hundreds of people gathered outside her house demanding action, and on Aug. 20 police arrested the girl pending an investigation. (The Associated Press is withholding her name because it does not generally identify juvenile suspects.)
Most Christians in the neighborhood fled – about 600 families, according to one interfaith group. Some said their landlords evicted them. A few have returned.
One of those who moved into the forest Sunday was Sumera Zahid, who was busy feeding her three children and her parents.
“We used to come here to collect wood for fuel so we find it a suitable place for shelter,” she said. “Here, it is not anybody's home, nobody's land. Let us live here in safety.”
Monday, their pastor, Arif Masih, spoke to them by the frame of the limbs and branches they were lashing together for their church.
"We are thankful to the Lord for this land, although here is no water and food, but rest assured the Lord will create water fountains and provide all fruits here for you if you remain patient and suffer these hardships, thanking the Lord,” he said.
Blasphemy is a sensitive issue in this 95 percent Muslim nation of 190 million people, and cases often grab huge attention here and abroad. Crowds have been known to beat or kill suspected blasphemers. Last year, two prominent politicians who criticized the blasphemy law were slain, one by his bodyguard who then attracted adoring mobs. In July, thousands of people dragged a man accused of desecrating the Quran from a police station, beat him to death and set his body afire.
Monday, the All Pakistan Ulema Council, an umbrella organization of Muslim clerics, held a news conference with the Pakistan Interfaith League, a group that says 600 families have fled and that is campaigning to return them to their homes.
The two groups called for an investigation into whether the girl was wrongly accused and what role religious extremism might have played.