With the third largest Muslim population, Pakistan enforces strict anti-blasphemy laws. While the purpose of those laws is to protect Islamic authority and foster the Islamic way of life, they encourage religiously-motivated violence. Since 1990, 62 people have been murdered as a result of blasphemy allegations. Although the Pakistani constitution protects religious freedom, Pakistani Christians suffer under the severe anti-blasphemy laws. One such law stipulates that any person who defiles the name of the prophet Muhammad or the Quran may be punished by life in prison or death. Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws are often used maliciously to falsely accuse Christians and other minorities.
In 2010, Asia Bibi became the first woman in Pakistan’s history to be sentenced to death for blasphemy. A mother and a farmworker, Asia Bibi had allegedly spoken against the Prophet Muhammad during a heated discussion with Muslim women in 2009. Worldwide condemnation against Pakistan’s strict laws caused the delay of the death sentence.
In 2011, Salmaan Taseer, an outspoken Pakistani governor, campaigned for Ms. Bibi’s release and for changes in the blasphemy laws and was shot and killed by his own police bodyguard.
Two months later, Shahbaz Bhatti, the minister of minorities and the only Christian cabinet minister in the Pakistani government, was shot and killed outside his home in Islamabad after he also called for changes to the blasphemy law.
However, after eight years on death row, Asia Bibi was acquitted of all charges by the supreme court. The verdict sparked violent protests across Pakistan. Ms. Bibi’s lawyer fled the country and the three justices who delivered the ruling faced a risk of assassination. Though Pakistani news media reported widely on November 1 that Bibi and her family flew from the country, officials denied all reports and insisted that she remained “in a safe place in Pakistan.”
Protesters in Islamabad blocked one of the main highways; burning tires and chanting slogans against the decision. The Muslim religious group leading the protests has demanded her death and threatened to take to the streets again if the state supported her escape.
The riots against Bibi’s release disturbs the Pakistani Christians who fear an outburst and continued targeted attacks against Christian leaders. Mahnaz Massih, a Christian beautician, spoke of her fear of radical Muslim protestors: “The pastor told us to hurry home after services and not linger outside. If we hear people talking about religion, we say nothing. We respect Islam, and Muslims should respect us, but some Muslims are scared, too,” she added. “They don’t like what is happening, but they don’t dare go against it.”
Due to the raging protestors, the government agreed to allow a review of the verdict and initiate legal proceedings to bar Ms. Bibi from leaving the country.
Continue to pray for the persecuted churches and the Christians of Pakistan who face religious discrimination and threats to their own safety. Even though the Supreme Courts acquitted Asia Bibi of all blasphemy charges, the radical protest groups pose a threat to the safety of all of those involved in her release from prison.