(CNSNews.com) – Thousands of Islamists gathered in the Pakistani capital on Sunday, warning the government not to touch the country’s blasphemy laws or to pardon a Christian woman on death row for allegedly blaspheming Mohammed.
The case of Asia (or Aasia) Bibi has triggered considerable debate in overwhelmingly Muslim Pakistan, where the federal government has been unwilling or unable to confront hard-line elements such as the fundamentalist cleric who has offered a reward to anyone who murders her.
Bibi, a 45 year-old mother, was sentenced to death by hanging on Nov. 8, 17 months after being arrested following allegations that she had insulted Islam’s prophet. She denied the claim, saying she had been falsely accused by Muslim co-workers who objected to sharing a water bowl with a Christian.
Appeals from Pope Benedict XVI and others prompted the governor of
Zardari was reported to be willing to do so but the high court in the Punjab capital,
No date has been set for an appeal hearing, however, and supporters are concerned that Bibi’s life may be in real danger even if her sentence is never carried out. A number of Pakistanis accused of blasphemy have been killed by mobs or individuals angered by the alleged offense – including in some cases while the person was in court or in custody, supposedly under state protection.
Adding to the concerns for her safety, Yousuf Qureshi, imam of the largest mosque in
Jamaat e Islami (JI), an Islamist political party which last week announced countrywide protests against any attempt to amend the blasphemy law, mounted a sit-in demonstration near parliament in
JI chief Munawar Hasan earlier told Pakistani reporters the government had to decide whether it stood with Muslims or with “the blasphemers.”
Other Islamist groups have also threatened violent consequences should Bibi be pardoned.
Qureshi’s public incitement to murder sparked some criticism in Pakistani media, but no sign of any law enforcement action or investigation. Article 506 of the
The only official public condemnation came from a minister who represents minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, who called Qureshi’s declaration “unjust and irresponsible” and pledged that Bibi would be given complete protection.
Bhatti earlier submitted a report to Zardari saying his investigations into the case found Bibi to be innocent.
‘Marked as targets’
“Those accused of blasphemy are often targeted with violence,” said Nasir Saeed, director of the Center for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS), an organization that provides free legal aid to Pakistani Christians.
“The misuse of blasphemy law continues to be a great danger to innocent people, especially Christians, and CLAAS will do everything possible to change this unjust and draconian law. We are calling on the government to amend it immediately.”
“Whatever the outcome of the Aasia Bibi case, she and her family are marked as targets for the rest of their lives and she will never be able to live as a free woman, if pardoned, in
“There is a sizeable portion of the population that might do the bidding of Yousuf Qureshi and feel entirely justified in their actions if they did,” it said.
In contrast, the mass circulation Urdu-language daily Nawa-e-Waqt published an editorial evidently supportive of Qureshi’s announcement. According to a translation provided by a Pakistani blogger, it said that devotees of Mohammed “will descend into the field as an army, and will complete the work that the government has been unable to after the verdict against Aasia Bibi.”
Naeem Shakir, a Pakistan Supreme Court advocate and human rights activist, argued in an op-ed in the Lahore-based Daily Times that the state had reached a “defining moment” and must decide whether it will allow citizens freedom of religion or not.
“The impression spread by the clergy that the country’s blasphemy law is divinely ordained and cannot be discussed must be dispelled,” he wrote. “In fact, our rulers are more concerned with their constituency that encompasses the religious lobby as well. Therefore, they lack the political will to do justice.”
Additions introduced in the 1980s outlawed “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage the religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs,” with sub-sections specifically dealing with insults targeting the Qur’an and Mohammed. The death penalty was also introduced as a possible sentence in the 1980s.
Between 1986 and 2009, more than 950 people were charged under the blasphemy laws, according to a report by the National Commission for Justice and Peace, a Catholic body.
The 1998 International Religious Freedom Act empowers the secretary of state to name foreign governments that violate citizens’ religious freedom – or allow them to be violated by other parties – “countries of particular concern” (CPCs). Designation allows the
Every year since 2002, the
In its 2010 annual report, USCIRF again recommended that the