Aleteia

Concern Grows Over Death Sentence for Pakistani Christian Who “Blasphemed” Muhammad

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But the United States supports laws criminalizing “offensive” speech.

International attention is turning towards the Supreme Court of Pakistan following the upholding of the death sentence on blasphemy charges for Aasiya Noreen, widely known as Asia Bibi.

Civil rights groups have joined churches in Pakistan expressing shock over the rejection of the appeal of the Christian mother of five who has been in detention since 2009. The Lahore High Court made the ruling October 16. Several international online petitions have gone viral, appealing to the Pakistani Supreme Court and the government to release Bibi. Some have been already gathered more than 200,000 signatures.

“The outcome of Asia Bibi’s appeal has upset a large number of people, and all eyes are now on the Supreme Court,” acknowledged the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) in a press statement on October 20.

“While the Commission is of the opinion that every effort should be made not to interfere with the judicial proceedings by making any comment, the fallout of the case cannot be ignored,” the Commission said.

The Catholic Church too has adopted a similar stance on this, with Father Emmanuel Yousaf Mani, director of the National (Catholic) Commission for Justice and Peace in Pakistan stating that "Like it or not, we have to accept the court order."

“Enough is enough. We are praying that justice will be done to Bibi by the Supreme Court,” Father Mani told Aleteia.

He said the Catholic Church will also file an appeal on behalf of Bibi, whose conviction under Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy law has drawn much media attention since she was sentenced to death by the trial court on November 8, 2010.

Bibi, a member of the lowest caste of “untouchables,” had a verbal dispute with a Muslim who lived next door to her in Punjab Province. The two worked together in a fruit field. The blasphemy accusation is widely suspected to be trumped up.

According to The News International of October 26, “On June 14, 2009, some Muslim co-workers refused to drink water which she (Bibi) had fetched for them. They refused to drink water believing that the utensil had become ‘unclean’ after it was touched by a Christian woman. The exchange of harsh words between the two sides developed into a religious brawl during which Asia allegedly uttered derogatory remarks about Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).”

“The situation led to a meeting in the village headed by some elders and a local cleric, Qari Salim, who later became complainant of the case, which was lodged five days after the incident occurred. Asia was arrested the same day the case was lodged — June 19, 2009,” the article said.

The conviction of the first Christian woman sentenced to death under the blasphemy law, which provides for mandatory death sentence even for unintentional acts or words of blasphemy, stunned the world.

This prompted two prominent Pakistanis, including an outspoken Catholic minister for minorities, to risk their lives in a bold bid to grant clemency to Bibi.

Salman Taseer, a Muslim and governor of Punjab, was shot dead on January 4, 2011 by his Muslim bodyguard after he initiated a clemency petition and visited Bibi in jail two days after the death sentence was pronounced.

Shabhaz Bhatti, the 42-year-old Catholic minister for religious minorities, who closely worked with Taseer on the clemency move, was killed in a hail of bullets on March 2, 2011, in Islamabad.

Prior to that, Bhatti had told this correspondent in a telephone interview that "My life is also under threat. I am getting threat calls regularly."

More than 96 percent of Pakistan’s over 180 million people are Muslims. While Christians and Hindus account for over 1.5 percent each, Ahmadis, Sikhs, and tribals account for the remaining one percent.