Threats, Protests Surround Pakistani Christian Woman Convicted of ‘Blaspheming’ Mohammed

December 6, 2010 - 6:02 AM

Pakistan Christian woman

Jamaat-e-Islami supporters chant slogans during the JI rally in Islamabad on Sunday, Dec. 5, 2010. (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed)

(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 Punjab province, Salman Taseer, to ask President Asif Ali Zardari to pardon her.

Zardari was reported to be willing to do so but the high court in the Punjab capital, Lahore, ruled last Monday that a pardon was not possible pending an appeal against Bibi’s sentence.

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 Peshawar, told a rally Friday that his mosque would give 500,000 rupees (about $5,800) to anyone who kills Bibi. He also warned the government not to tamper with blasphemy laws which he said protect Mohammed’s “sanctity.”

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 Islamabad Sunday to make its point, along with broader calls for the government to abandon its alliance with the United States.

Pakistani Christians

Pakistani Muslims protest against Asia Bibi in Multan on Friday, Dec. 3, 2010. The placard reads, “We are ready to die for the sanctity of the prophet.” (AP Photo/Khalid Tanveer)

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 Pakistan penal code outlaws “criminal intimidation,” and in cases where death is threatened the standard applicable two-year prison term rises to seven.

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 Pakistan,” the Karachi-based newspaper The News said in an editorial Sunday.

“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.”

Taseer, the Punjab governor, criticized Nawa-e-Waqt for what he called its “heinous support of vigilante killing.”

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.”

In the Punjab state legislature on Friday, the speaker refused to allow a Christian lawmaker to raise the Bibi issue on the grounds it was “sensitive.” Minority legislators then walked out in protest and the speaker later allowed an Islamist member to speak about Bibi, calling those who wanted her released “blasphemers.”

‘Discriminatory’

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, prohibiting “injuring or defiling a place of worship with intent to insult the religion of any class,” date back to 19th century British rule.

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.

In the U.S., a bipartisan statutory body set up to advise the executive branch and Congress on religious freedom issues, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), has been calling since 2002 for the government to designate Pakistan as an egregious violator.

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 U.S. to take steps, including engagement and sanctions against the governments concerned.

Every year since 2002, the Pakistan recommendation has been disregarded. (The current CPCs are Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan.)

In its 2010 annual report, USCIRF again recommended that the U.S. urged Pakistan’s government to repeal its “discriminatory” blasphemy laws.