Fierce debates on blasphemy laws continue in Pakistan as banners demand death for Asia Bibi, the Catholic woman condemned for allegedly insulting Prophet Mohammed. 

The case of the first woman ever sentenced to death under Pakistan’s blasphemy law restarted the discussion between fundamentalist and moderate Muslims. Church groups brought the matter to the limelight when a district court gave a death sentence to Bibi on Nov. 14. She had been held in isolation for 16 months after heated religious discussions with her co-workers at a farm. 

Pope Benedict XVI also urged clemency for the Pakistani woman in his Nov. 17 general audience address at St. Peter’s Square, expressing his “spiritual closeness” to her. 

A recent meeting of Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari in Islamabad was a major development in this regard. In an interview with Vatican Radio, Cardinal Tauran said the president had expressed interest in abolishing the country’s blasphemy laws. 

“He demonstrated great interest in the Holy See’s position on religious freedom,” the cardinal told Vatican Radio. 

The French cardinal also explored the situation of Christian-Muslim dialogue in the country. 

“I have been impressed by the vitality of the Christian community whose members, in spite of the difficult situation of the country, remain loyal citizens ready to collaborate with all those who are struggling for a harmonious Pakistani society,” he told Our Sunday Visitor. 

Fundamentalist fury 

Bibi’s case is presently pending with Lahore High Court, which has prevented the government from granting a swift pardon to Bibi. 

Human rights groups denounced the court’s stay order against an action that was yet to take place. This suspends the constitutional prerogative of the president, they say. 

Their concerns grew when an imam in Peshawar, capital city of the Taliban-infested Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, offered a 500,000 rupee ($5,700) reward to anyone who killed Bibi. In a sermon last month, the mosque leader called on local Muslims to behead the woman if the court failed to hang her. 

“This is a less than honorable chapter of our history. There was an open incitement to murder and both the court and judicial process are silent. It is a crime against state, yet nobody registered a first information report against the mosque announcement,” said Wajahat Masood, a senior journalist in Pakistan, speaking at a program organized by Pakistan Catholic Bishops’ National Commission for Justice and Peace last month. 

Controversial laws 

Pakistan has among the strictest blasphemy laws in all the Muslim nations. The criminal laws meant to protect Islam are also being used to intimidate all religious minorities, not just Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Hindus, but also Ahmadis, a movement that considers itself part of Islam that is not recognized by other Muslims. 

Terrorist organizations associated with the Taliban have issued a fatwa against Shabhaz Bhatti, a Catholic and minister for religious minorities, who is establishing a commission to consider revisions to blasphemy laws. 

Sherry Rehman, a member of Pakistan’s parliament and the former federal minister for information and broadcasting, moved an anti-blasphemy bill in parliament Nov. 24, which outlines some safeguards to stop the abuse of law and religion, and proposed 12 amendments to the country’s laws. 

Muslim groups in the country have launched a movement against proposed amendments in the blasphemy laws. The court has issued stay orders preventing any bill regarding amending the laws until further judicial proceedings. 

‘Faith sustains me’ 

Meanwhile the authorities in district jail Sheikhupura have tightened the security measures for Bibi amid the looming threats. The 45-year-old is only permitted two hours out of her cell in the morning and after lunch, and has to stay inside during usual meeting hours of the prison. “I was afraid during early months of isolation, but now I know people are praying for me in the churches. I can feel the spiritual closeness,” she told Our Sunday Visitor in a recent meeting. 

Her five children and husband now live in an undisclosed location. Many blasphemy victims live the rest of their life in hiding. Yousaf Masih, the high profile blasphemy convict of the 2005 Sangla Hill case, died in Lahore after living in a secret location for three years. 

According to the latest statistics collected by NCJP, 34 Christians and Muslims have been killed extrajudicially in connection with allegations involving blasphemy since 1986. 

Seventeen cases of blasphemy were registered through October 2010, according to the commission. These include eight Christians, three Muslims and six Hindus. 

Kamran Chaudhry writes from Pakistan.

Religious Freedom at Risk (sidebar)

The U.S. State Department released its annual International Religious Freedom Report in November. Although Pakistan was not among the “countries of particular concern,” the report noted that “relations between religious communities remained tense and societal discrimination was widespread. Nongovernmental actors, including terrorist and extremist groups and individuals, targeted religious congregations.”  The eight countries of particular concern are Burma, China, Eritrea, North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan.