(CNSNews.com) – As Christians around the world prepare to celebrate Jesus’ birth a fellow believer is preparing to spend her fifth consecutive Christmas behind bars in Pakistan, the victim of a “blasphemy” conviction widely viewed as fabricated.
Asia Bibi, a 46 year-old mother of five, is one of at least 17 Pakistanis on death row after conviction under the country’s controversial blasphemy laws, while at least 20 more are serving life sentences, according to the State Department and human rights researchers.
Her case struck a particular chord around the world not only as she was the first Pakistani Christian woman to be sentenced to death for supposed blaspheming Mohammed, but also because two senior officials who championed her case were assassinated.
In a prevailing climate of fear, critics of the law then suspended a tentative reform campaign, and the then-ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) assured Islamic radical groups that the blasphemy laws would be left in place.
Now, almost three years after the liberal Muslim governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, and Christian federal cabinet minister Shahbaz Bhatti were shot dead, Asia Bibi remains incarcerated, her appeal application not expected to be heard before 2015 at the earliest.
“Asia has been abandoned, her plight mostly forgotten or ignored,” said Patrick Sookhdeo, international director of Barnabas Fund, a charity working among minority Christians in Islamic countries, which is supporting Asia Bibi’s family.
“The Pakistani government has failed to intervene, fearful of a vitriolic backlash by radical elements within the country that it has been unable to control,” he said.
Although the PPP as a party had never been particularly eager to support amendments to the blasphemy laws – let alone calls for their complete repeal – it did have some harsh critics of the laws within its ranks – including Taseer and Sherry Rehman, a PPP lawmakers who is now Islamabad’s ambassador to the U.S.
The new ruling party since elections last May, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League, is thought even less likely to tackle the explosive issue than the PPP ever was.
Asia Bibi’s plight began on a day in the summer 2009 when she was among a group of agricultural laborers – all Muslim women apart from her – and took a drink from a communal well during a rest break.
According to Anne-Isabelle Tollet, a French journalist who worked with Asia Bibi in prison on a book, when the lone non-Muslim in the group dipped her cup back into the well, co-workers accused her of defiling the water, because she is a Christian.
Asia Bibi replied, “I don’t believe that Mohammed would share the same view as you,” – and was then accused of blaspheming Islam’s prophet, and arrested, Tollet says.
Under Pakistan’s penal code outlaw, insulting Mohammed or desecrating the Qur’an are criminal offenses, punishable by death or life imprisonment. Asia Bibi was convicted and, in November 2010, was sentenced to death by hanging. Not content, a radical cleric offered a reward for her murder.
“Although it is widely recognized that Asia, a simple and uneducated woman, did not blaspheme against Muhammad, she remains languishing on death row,” Sookhdeo said.
“Her husband and children have been forced into hiding, as those accused of blasphemy and their families are extremely vulnerable to attack by Islamic extremists in Pakistan.”
Some 97 per cent of Pakistan’s 180 million people are Muslims.
Although Muslims are often targeted under the blasphemy laws critics say religious minorities are disproportionately affected: Of 30 cases brought under the laws in 2012, 11 were against Christians, five against Ahmadis and 14 against Muslims, according to the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP), a Catholic body.
The laws are often viewed as the key root cause of violence against Christians in Pakistan, with the mere accusation of blasphemy enough to trigger violence and even murder. Those who dare to question the law are, like Taseer and Rehman, themselves accused of blasphemy.
Although the government has yet to carry out an execution for blasphemy, dozens of people have been killed over the years, for instance by angry assailants or mobs, after being publicly accused. The NCJP has tracked at least 51 such deaths between 1990 and 2012.
Early this month Pakistan’s federal shari’a court recommended that the government remove life imprisonment as one of the punishments for blasphemy against Mohammed, making the death penalty mandatory. A previous such ruling more than two decades ago was never implemented and it is not clear how the government will respond this time, but critics say the court decision alone could make life more difficult for religious minorities.
The Obama administration has repeatedly criticized the blasphemy laws but has also overruled recommendations to designate Pakistan as an egregious religious freedom violator under U.S. law.
Another case that drew attention to the blasphemy laws was that of Rimsha Masih, a young girl with Down syndrome who was accused in 2012 of burning pages of a Qur’an teaching guide.
Local clerics called over mosque loudspeakers for the girl to be burned alive, and Christians’ homes were attacked by a riled-up mob. Police then investigated allegations that a Muslim cleric had intentionally planted the pages in Rimsha’s bag containing papers to be burned, and the charges were dropped. But ongoing death threats prompted her family to flee, and it was reported earlier this year that they have been resettled in Canada.