STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
A Christian woman in Pakistan has been sentence to death. Her name is Aasia Norreen Bibi. She works as a farmhand and she was convicted on blasphemy charges in the overwhelmingly Muslim nation. Now the Vatican is calling for her release and Muslim fundamentalists are calling for her head. NPR's Julie McCarthy reports from eastern Pakistan.
JULIE MCCARTHY: Outside the gate of the district jail here in Sheikhupura, a Sunday passes quietly. Inside sits Aasia Noreen Bibi, convicted of blaspheming the Prophet Mohammad and sentenced to die for the crime. A quarrel in a field among female farmhands escalated to charges of blasphemy. The case of Aasia, a Christian and a mother imprisoned here for the past 18 months, has sparked attention abroad and a fury at home.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING IN FOREIGN LANGUAGE)
MCCARTHY: Under the law, defiling the Quran merits imprisonment for life. Defaming the sacred name of Muhammad merits death, a penalty introduced in the 1980's under Dictator General Zia Al Haq to prop up his rule using Islam, say critics.
CROWD: (Chanting in foreign language)
MCCARTHY: The Taliban's message was loud and clear: it was a direct threat. And as a result of that threat the family is now on the run. The family recently fled from this Christian colony of Gloria in the city of Sheikhupura 90 minutes outside Lahore. Community leaders help us find family members, knocking on doors and comparing notes over cell phones.
(SOUNDBITE OF CELL PHONE CONVERSATION IN FOREIGN LANGUAGE)
MCCARTHY: As the search stretches into night, Christmas carolers brighten the dark lanes of Gloria.
(SOUNDBITE OF SIGNING IN FOREIGN LANGUAGE)
MCCARTHY: Thank you for coming out of hiding, momentarily, to see us. Could you tell us, do you feel in grave danger?
ASHIQ MESIH: (Foreign language spoken)
MCCARTHY: You're saying there is much danger to yourself and to your family. And even if your wife does come out, you feel that she could be killed. Ashiq Mesih, as a Christian in Pakistan, did you live in fear even before this case, that you would run afoul of the law somehow, just by virtue of the fact that you're a minority here?
MESIH: (Foreign language spoken)
MCCARTHY: Father Samson Dalawar, a parish priest who saw his church burned down in 2005, has been threatened by anonymous callers for assisting Aasia - who he says is not safe in prison. He says the killing last year of a young Christian man accused of blasphemy in nearby Sialkot is a cautionary tale.
SAMSON DALAWAR: So that boy was killed in the jail. She can also be murdered in the jail, as well. She can be killed anytime. Anything can happen.
MCCARTHY: In July, two brothers, who were Christian, walked out of the Faisalabad courthouse facing charges of blasphemy when gunmen opened fire and killed them. Christians in Pakistan are ghettoized in the poorest housing, relegated to the most menial jobs, and marginalized to the lowest socio- economic class. Political analyst Rasul Bakhsh Rais says the blasphemy laws are nothing more than a big stick to intimidate the other into submission.
RASUL BAKHSH RAIS: And in most of the cases it has become an instrument of personal vendetta, revenge and settling personal scores. And it is why this law needs to be revisited and re-examined.
MCCARTHY: Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer helped spur what has become Pakistan's first public debate over the blasphemy law when he visited Aasia Bibi in jail and took her case to the President.
SALMAAN TASEER: Before this, nobody was prepared to discuss this law, it will set the mullahs at your throat. And I said that she should be pardoned, and this is a travesty and shame that a poor women like this who hasn't the means to defend herself has trumped up charges. And in a country where your Prime Minister is Muslim, your President is Muslim, you know, you're 95 percent Muslim - and what is the need for laws like this?
MCCARTHY: Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have called for the law's repeal. A bill in Parliament would shorten sentences and require a showing of criminal intent. Even such recommendations risk serious reprisals. But analyst Rasul Bakhsh Rais says wavering in the face of a fundamentalist backlash will damage Pakistan more.
REIS: Who is going to visit Pakistan? Who is going to invest in this country? Who is going to buy the goods produced by the Pakistanis? It hurts Pakistan in a big way.
MCCARTHY: The Punjab's outspoken Governor Tasser is resolute.
SALMAN TASSER: Now, you know, frankly, it's for God were to decide whether I must live or not, not some illiterate mullah to decide whether I'm a Muslim or not.
MCCARTHY: Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Islamabad
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