By BosNewsLife Asia Service with reporting by BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos
LAHORE, PAKISTAN (BosNewsLife)-- A Christian mother of five sentenced to death on charges of "blasphemy" against Islam and over a dozen other Christians held in Pakistani jails spent Christmas Day without their families, after authorities refused requests to allow prison visits, well-informed Christians said.
Asia Bibi, 46, "is spending a third Christmas separated from her family as she awaits an appeal" against plans to execute her by hanging for “blasphemy”, Barnabas Fund, an advocacy group assisting her family, told BosNewsLife.
She is held in the high security District Jail Seikhupura, some 35 kilometers (22 miles) northwest of Lahore, the capital of Punjab province.
Bibi, a farm worker, was detained in June 2009 on charges of defiling the name of Islam's Prophet Mohammad during an argument with Muslim co-workers. She has denied wrongdoing.
"She is being kept in isolation for her own safety, and is able to see her children only twice a year because of the security risk to them."
Bibi herself has been recovering in her Pakistani jail after she was allegedly attacked and beaten unconscious by a Muslim prison officer in October, said the Pakistan Christian Congress (PCC) party earlier. Authorities pledged an investigation.
Later, a fellow believer held on blasphemy charges, Irfan Masih, was among others being attacked by Islamists on Tuesday, December 20, in a Kasur City jail, Christians said. He was reportedly seriously injured in the knife attack and was believed to be in a Lahore hospital on Christmas Day.
Despite security risks, Bibi's family "had an emotional reunion on December 13, carefully organized by a Christian couple who run the school that Asia’s daughters attend," Barnabas Fund explained.
"When the incarcerated mother saw her children, she naturally wanted to hug and kiss them but was not initially allowed any contact. The school director pleaded with the jail authorities and obtained permission for the family to meet in a separate room."
Barnabas Fund quoted the unidentified director as saying that Bibi "gave lots of hugs and kisses to the children" and that "it was a moment where the mother could shower her love upon her children."
He described it as "a wonderful moment provided by the Lord Jesus Christ to the family of Asia Bibi."
The school director, whose name was not revealed apparently amid security concerns, reportedly said that "Asia started crying and praying to God for His mercy and freedom so that she could stay with her family with peace and love.”
Barnabas Fund told BosNewsLife in a statement that it had been able to meet with her husband and children and was providing the impoverished family with a monthly food parcel and money for "winter bedding, warm clothing and Christmas gifts for the children."
An appeal against her death sentence was filed at Lahore High Court, but trial observers say the case has been delayed and is unlikely to be heard soon because of Muslim hostility.
Two Pakistani politicians, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer and Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, have been assassinated by militants over their support for Asia Bibi and opposition to blasphemy legislation that condemned her. "Defiling the name of Muhammad" carries a mandatory death penalty in Pakistan, although
that is often turned into long prison sentences by authorities.
Several Christians under blasphemy investigation are known to have been killed in and outside prisons by militants, or their supporters.
Pakistan's government is under international pressure to help release her, but the Special Adviser to the Pakistani Prime Minister for National Harmony, Paul Bhatti, asked for more time. "We can't concentrate all our powers [and] efforts only to release Asia Bibi because there are so many other people who are living
like her, if not worse," Bhatti told Vatican Radio.
"We have to introduce legislation that will protest all minorities, so they will not be victims of such kind of situation."
Critics say the blasphemy law has been used to persecute minority faiths, such as Christians, in Pakistan and is exploited by people with personal grudges.
Besides Bibi, "There are other more than a dozen Christian victims of blasphemy in different jails of Punjab province" who "will also be waiting for their families visit on Christmas Day but will never be able to meet them," said the PCC party, which claims to represent 20 million Pakistani Christians.
Among them "blasphemy victim" Khurram Masih who PCC said "was seen crying in the courthouse" Saturday December 24, 2011, to stand trial on charges of burning pages of the Koran, deemed a holy book by Muslims.
The alleged December 6 incident in Shahdara Town, about 1 kilometer (0.5 miles) from central central Lahore, Masih and rights investigators suggested. Masih reportedly said he was "beaten badly by police" following his detention, "to force" him "to confess the act of burning pages" of the Koran.
He also said he had not been able to eat in the last three says amid the alleged mistreatment.
The PCC said however that even "Outside the jails of Pakistan Christians" the situation of Christians was "like a jail". Pakistani security forces were seen providing additional security around main churches on Christmas eve, as believers prepared for Midnight Mass and other church services.
Christians comprise less than 5 percent of the country's 188 million people, who are mainly Muslims.