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Christian’s Death Verdict Spurs Holy Row In Pakistan

ICC Note

“And it’s not just Christians who are targeted. Muslims have also been charged with blasphemy. Christians are easy to implicate, though. If they talk about religion, they are accused of blasphemy. If a Christian touches the Holy Quran, he is accused of a crime. And here, petty issues get twisted into accusations of blasphemy,”

By Julie McCarthy
12/14/2010 Pakistan (NPR)-It began in the summer of 2009 as a quarrel over water in a sweltering farm field in the province of Punjab. When the heated words were over, Asia Noreen Bibi was charged under the strict blasphemy laws of predominantly Muslim Pakistan.

A Christian wife and mother, the woman commonly known as Asia Bibi was convicted by a district court last month of blaspheming the Prophet Muhammad. The punishment is mandatory death and Asia Bibi became the first female in Pakistan to be sentenced to hang for blasphemy.

Asia Bibi, a Roman Catholic, says she did not commit the crime. The case has drawn international condemnation, and Pope Benedict XVI has called for Asia Bibi’s release.

But in a country where conservative religious forces are gathering strength, fundamentalists have called for her head.

At a recent protest after Friday’s prayers in Rawalpindi, a small crowd of bearded men chanted: “Asia, the blasphemer: Hang her, hang her.”

Under the law, defiling the Quran merits imprisonment for life. Defaming the sacred name of Muhammad merits death. The penalties were introduced in the 1980s under the dictatorship of General Zia Al Haq, who critics say used the measures to prop up his rule using Islam.

The protesting men pledged to “protect the dignity” of the Prophet and “to sacrifice our lives for Muhammad.”

Still, the life of Asia Bibi, a mother of two and stepmother of three, is at stake. A cleric has offered 500,000 rupees — roughly $5,800 — to anyone who kills the jailed woman, who is being held in the district jail in the city of Sheikhupura. The Taliban also have threatened retribution should she be spared, yet another sign the case has become a rallying point for extremists.

A Frightened Family

Within 24 hours of the Taliban warning, Asia Bibi’s family fled their home in the Christian colony of Gloria in Sheikhupura, a 90-minute drive from Lahore.

Community leaders helped NPR locate family members and set up an interview in a safe house with Ashiq Masih, Asia Bibi’s husband.

Looking drawn, Masih, a poor kiln worker who makes bricks for a living, said that his wife and family are in grave danger.

“Even if my wife does come out [of jail], she could be killed,” he said, adding that her case is not the first of its kind.

“And it’s not just Christians who are targeted. Muslims have also been charged with blasphemy. Christians are easy to implicate, though. If they talk about religion, they are accused of blasphemy. If a Christian touches the Holy Quran, he is accused of a crime. And here, petty issues get twisted into accusations of blasphemy,” Masih said.

Disputed Evidence

Human rights groups say that the case highlights the treatment of religious minorities in Sunni Muslim-dominated Pakistan.

At trial, Asia Bibi’s defense attorney called the charges a “fanciful drama” by a Muslim majority arrayed against a Christian minority.

When Asia Bibi offered her fellow farm hands water, they refused on the grounds that as a Christian she had made it impure. Both sides stoutly defended their faiths, and Asia Bibi was charged with blasphemy.

In July, two brothers who were Christian walked out of the Faisalabad courthouse facing charges of blasphemy when gunmen opened fire and killed them.

In the summer of 2009 in the town of Gojra, also in Punjab province, mobs attacked the Christian quarter, torching homes on rumors that members of the community had torn pages of the Quran.  At least a half a dozen people burned to death.

Christians in Pakistan are ghettoized in the poorest housing, relegated to the most menial jobs and marginalized to the lowest socio-economic class.

Political analyst Rasul Bakhsh Rais says the blasphemy laws are nothing more than a “big stick” to intimidate “the other” — Christians and other religious minorities — into submission.

Blasphemy Cases Rise

Statistics from the National Commission for Justice and Peace, a human rights organization of the Catholic Church in Pakistan, show that accusations of blasphemy are on the rise, with more than 110 people accused last year.

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