Hundreds of Muslims took to the streets of Lahore on Friday to demonstrate their anger as the Pakistani government makes its mind up over whether or not to pardon a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy.
Muslims in the country are outraged at the prospect of Asia Bibi’s death sentence being overturned. According to Agence France Presse, the rally was organised by a subsidiary of Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), a banned charity that the UN believes has terrorist links.
The JuD’s chief coordinator, Qari Yaqub, told demonstrators: “We will hold nationwide protests if the government pardons the Christian woman.”
The head of the Sunni Ittehad Council, Sahibzada Fazal Kareem, told the AFP: “The pardon would lead to anarchy in the country. Our stand is very clear that this punishment cannot be waived.”
Bibi was sentenced to hang on November 8 for allegedly blaspheming against Islam during a dispute with Muslim colleagues last year. She has already spent the last year and a half in prison but is hoping that President Asif Ali Zardari will grant her a pardon.
On Thursday, Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti submitted a report to the government in which he stated that the blasphemy case against Bibi was based on personal enmity and that the charges were false. He recommended that Bibi appeal her sentence in the Lahore High Court.
The case has made international headlines, with Pope Benedict XVI among those who have appealed for her release.
Christian human rights groups have made repeated appeals to the Pakistani government to repeal its blasphemy laws. The Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS), which provides free legal support to Pakistan’s Christians, says that the blasphemy laws are frequently misused by Muslims seeking to settle personal scores and rivalries, and that police often turn a blind eye out of fear of retaliation by radical Muslims.
Nasir Saeed, coordinator of CLAAS' UK office said: “CLAAS has called repeatedly upon the Pakistani government to repeal the blasphemy laws.
“It is not simply that they are being misused by Islamic extremists to settle scores with Christians. There is also the fact that they foster an attitude of superiority among the majority-Muslim population, that it is somehow ok to mistreat Christians.
“Such an attitude is only reinforced by the fact that extremists are very rarely held to account by the legal system, while the real victims, the Christians, are handed severe sentences on the basis of scant evidence and sham trials.”