Pope Francis has said that he is praying for imprisoned Pakistani Christian mother Asia Bibi and the thousands of other persecuted believers in Pakistan in the wake of heightened violence against their community.
On Wednesday, the Pope met with the husband and 15 year old daughter of Bibi, who was sentenced to death in 2010 after being convicted on controversial blasphemy charges.
"I pray for Asia, for you and for all Christians who are suffering," Francis told the family, who are currently in Rome to urge European leaders to put pressure on the Pakistani government to release Bibi, according to the Vatican Insider website.
Currently, Pakistan's highest court is reviewing an appeal of Bibi's sentence to death by hanging, the final legal step before the sentence can be carried out. "If the Church will get involved it could be [easier to secure her freedom]," Bibi's lawyer, Joseph Nadeem, said in an interview with Vatican Radio on Wednesday.
However, Bibi, a mother of five, has denied all allegations, arguing that the blasphemy charge against her was retaliation for a disagreement with other villagers in her rural Punjabi community. As previously reported by the Gospel Herald, Bibi was first arrested in 2009 after getting into an argument with two Muslim field workers when the women refused to drink from a bucket of water she had touched because she was not Muslim. In turn, Bibi was accused of defiling the name of the Prophet Muhammad, a serious charge which carries the death penalty.
During the recent Easter celebration, Bibi asked Pope Francis to pray for her, and sent him a letter several months earlier asking for his assistance.
Pakistan's blasphemy laws are often misused by authorities to settle political disputes and pressure minorities, particularly Christians, who make up less than 2% of the country's population. Muslims have in the past targeted accused blasphemers, including a Christian couple lynched and burnt to death by an angry mob in November 2014.
Additionally, Pakistan's Christian community has faced increasing threats of violence amid growing religious intolerance. Last week, a 14-year-old Christian boy died after being beaten and set ablaze in Lahore after reportedly identifying his religious affiliation to several Muslim men. Less than a month earlier, simultaneous bombings at churches in Lahore left at least 14 people dead, prompting Pope Francis to call for solidarity with the country's Christian minority.
Meanwhile, Christians within Pakistan continue to support Bibi, with leaders calling on authorities to reverse the sentence. Haroon Barkat, director of the Masihi Foundation, a group working to protect Christians from blasphemy laws, added that "international pressures and mobilization can be useful" in influencing the case.
Barkat said that above all, "the political will of the government and of the highest authorities in Pakistan is needed" to put an end to the many false blasphemy cases in the country.