A Pakistani woman displays an image of Jesus and Mary, on the wall of her home in Islamabad. The plight of Pakistan's Christian minority received renewed focus in recent weeks because of the arrest of a young, mentally challenged girl accused of insulting Islam. (Nathalie Bardou/AP)

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A Pakistani court granted bail Friday to a Christian girl accused of blasphemy, a rare development in this Muslim-majority nation where critics say such allegations are frequently concocted to persecute religious minorities and settle personal scores.

Human rights advocates and a coalition of prominent Muslim clerics applauded the court’s action, while Pakistan’s interior minister, Rehman Malik, all but pronounced the girl innocent. He said the accused never left her home on the day three weeks ago when a young man claimed that he saw her carrying burnt pages of the Koran in a trash bag in her village outside Islamabad.

Under Pakistani laws that forbid desecration of the Koran, the girl, said to be 14, could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted. Judge Mohammad Azam Khan set her bail at 1 million rupees, or $10,500, a huge sum for most Pakistanis.

But Paul Bhatti, who heads Pakistan’s Ministry of National Harmony, predicted that the girl would be released within a day from the high-security adult prison near Rawalpindi where she has been held.

Muslim leaders across Pakistan have united “against this type of discrimination that is targeting the Christian community,” Bhatti said in an interview. “I am very hopeful for that and very happy that justice has prevailed.” 

In the past, officials have been reticent about speaking out against the blasphemy laws, but this case is unusual not only because of the girl’s age but also because of reports that she is mentally disabled.

Malik, who delivered a report on the case to the Pakistani Senate on Friday, said that although the defendant is 14, “her mental state is 7 years and she hasn’t the mental capacity beyond a child of that age.”

After word of her alleged crime spread through the mixed Muslim-Christian community where her family lives, a mob threatened to burn the girl alive. Police later said that they arrested her for her own safety.

Last week, the imam of the neighborhood mosque was arrested after a witness accused him of mixing pages of a Koran into the bag of ashes that the girl carried. Christian residents said he planted the evidence as part of a campaign to get Christians to leave the community. Several hundred have fled since the girl’s arrest.

The imam, who is under investigation on suspicion of blasphemy, denies the allegations.

In court Friday, the girl’s attorney, Tahir Naveed Chaudhry, said the girl should be treated according to juvenile law and released on bail. “This incident has brought a bad name to Pakistan around the world, and the country’s reputation has been damaged,” he said.

Rao Abdul Rahim, the opposing counsel, maintained that the girl was 16 and had confessed to burning the holy book. “The court has no other option but to award [her] with due punishment,” he said.

Pakistani human rights leaders praised Khan’s decision to grant bail. “The fact is that this child should not have been behind bars at all,” New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement.  “All charges against her should be dropped, and Pakistan’s criminal justice system should instead concentrate on holding her accuser accountable for inciting violence against the child and members of the local Christian community.”

One million people have signed an online petition appealing for the girl’s release, according to Avaaz, an advocacy group that has quoted her father as saying she has “mental disabilities and often isn’t in control of her actions.”

“We are a poor Christian family, witnessing mob fury over my daughter’s case,” the father said, according to Avaaz. “And many other families have faced similar intimidation, forcing them to either flee or live in fear.” 

Bhatti, who has taken the girl’s family into protective custody, said that upon her release the girl would be taken to an undisclosed location for her safety.

Last year, militants assassinated Bhatti’s brother, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic who was serving as Pakistan’s minority affairs minister and was supporting reform of the blasphemy laws.

Two months earlier, another critic of the laws, Punjab provincial governor Salman Taseer, was gunned down by one of his security guards. After the guard confessed, he was celebrated by many Pakistanis for defending Islam.