By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife with BosNewsLife Asia Service
ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN (BosNewsLife)-- Pakistan's president Asif Ali Zardari will not immediately pardon a Christian who has been sentenced to death for allegedly insulting Islam, an official reportedly said Thursday, November 25.
Asia Bibi, 45, an agricultural worker and mother of five, is the first woman to face execution for blasphemy, according to human rights groups.
Bibi, who has been jailed for nearly 15 months, was sentenced to hang in Pakistan's central province of Punjab after being found guilty of breaking the country's controversial blasphemy law by making derogatory remarks against Islam's Prophet Mohammed. Her family says she was falsely accused over a personal dispute.
Punjab Governor Salman Taseer said earlier it was his understanding that President Zardari would "pardon Bibi" if the High Court did not grant her request for mercy.
However Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian himself, told reporters Thursday, November 25, that Zardari declined to "immediately" pardon Bibi, but that he would do so if the appeal is delayed in court.
Bhatti said he recommended the president Thursday, November 25, to release the Christian mother as soon as possible. Last week, Pope Benedict XVI also urged Pakistan to release Bibi and expressed his concern about the treatment of the country's Christian minority.
Yet, Zardari is under Islamic pressure not to free Bibi. Some 250 hard-line Muslims reportedly held a demonstration in the city Lahore this week warning the president not to pardon the Christian mother.
Two prominent Pakistani Muslim leaders have also threatened to call for nationwide protests if Zardari pardons Bibi.
"If the president pardons Asia Bibi, we will raise our voices across the country until he is forced to take his decision back," nationally known mufti Muneer Ur Rehman said in published remarks. Hafiz Ibtisam Elahi Zaheer, a leading cleric in Lahore, said pardoning the woman would be "criminal negligence" and would cause inter-religious tension.
Bibi's trial has underscored international concerns about blasphemy legislation. Her case come just months after the Lahore High Court released a woman held without trial for 14 years on allegations of desecrating the Koran, deemed a holy book by Muslims.
Despite "no evidence" being found against 60-year-old Zaibunnisa, she had been left to languish in the prison section of a mental hospital since 1996, the court said in July. Zaibunnisa’s family did not challenge her detention, according to her defense lawyer Aftab Ahmad Bajwa.
Although no one is known to have been sent to the gallows for the crime of blasphemy, religious extremists have attacked and killed several accused in custody. Two Christian brothers accused of writing a blasphemous pamphlet were shot dead in July outside a court in Faisalabad.