Pakistan: Hope grows for clemency in Asia Bibi case

Asia Bibi.

Influential Cardinal Archbishop Roger Etchegaray, who serves as the Vice Dean of the Vatican’s College of Cardinals, has sent a letter to Pakistani President Asi Ali Zadari begging for clemency in the case of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman now on death row in the South Asian country for having allegedly blasphemed, according to Muslim law. The letter said,  "I ask you to think of her as a sister, a daughter of Abraham, our common father in faith.” Cardinal Etchegaray wields significant influence in dialogue between the Catholic Church and worldwide Islam. Ever since Pope John Paul II commissioned a Vatican council on inter-religious dialogue in 1986, along with the organization of a world inter-religious prayer meeting in Italy, the 90 year-old Cardinal Etchegaray has sought to find the means for Christian/Muslim coexistence. 

 
Asia Bibi, a mother of five, was convicted in 2010 by a Pakistani court of blasphemy and sentenced to death  by hanging. The charges emerged when Bibi insisted that Christians and Muslims are equal before God, after a Muslim woman contended that any Muslim who shares food or drink with Christians  is thus defiled. Numerous appeals of mercy have been presented to the Pakistani government. Even an appeal from Pope Benedict XVI has been for naught. A year ago, more than 500,000 people from 100 countries signed a petition to the government of Pakistan to pardon the Christian woman who has been sentenced to death.
 
Pakistan's controversial blasphemy law is enshrined in the Criminal Code of the South Asian country. It forbids the insult towards any religion, but in practice this is applied most rigorously concerning Islam.  The most severe penalties for the desecration of the Koran or denouncing Muhammad can be life imprisonment or death. Pakistanis coming to the defense of Bibi have not been immune from blasphemy charges themselves. In January 2013, Pakistan’s supreme court reopened a blasphemy case involving Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, Sherry Rehman. The ambassador, who had been one of Pakistan’s few members of parliament, had criticized the blasphemy law during a television debate in 2011. A businessman living in the Pakistani city of Multan claims the diplomat had insulted Islam by calling for an end to the blasphemy law. Rehman was also an outspoken defender of Bibi.
 
While in Pakistan no death sentence for blasphemy has yet been executed, but several defendants have been lynched after release. Islamists are up in arms in protest against any amendments to the law, which they contend honor Allah. In its present form it was introduced in 1986 by military dictator Muhammad Zia ul-Haq. Religious minorities and liberal Muslims are demanding better protection against abuse of the law, since spurious charges are often made for revenge or material motives. Minorities such as Christians are often accused disproportionately.
 
In 2011 were assassinated both the Minister for Minorities - the only Christian in the government - and the governor of Punjab province who defended him. Both criticized the blasphemy law, which is often misused to denigrate personal enemies.
 
World Vision In Progress announced on February 7 that Barkat Masih, a Christian the group had defended from blasphemy charges, has been acquitted by Pakistan’s supreme court. That Masih will not receive the death penalty has been interpreted that clemency may also be granted to Bibi


Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. He is also a freelance translator.

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