By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
LAHORE PAKISTAN (BosNewsLife)-- An appeals court in Pakistan upheld the death sentence against a devoted Christian mother for "blasphemy" against Islam, sparking calls for prayers amid concerns a Supreme Court case may take years, BosNewsLife learned Thursday, October 16.
Asia Bibi, who is married and has five children, had been "languishing in prison since 2009" after she was sentenced to death awaiting her appeal, advocacy officials involved in the case told BosNewsLife.
However the Lahore High Court ruled Thursday, October 16, that the execution by hanging could be carried out, adding to concerns among Christian refugees who fled the country to avoid a similar sentence.
Witnesses said judges Anwar Ul Haq and Shahbaz Ali Rizvi upheld the death sentence amid pressure from dozens Islamists, including clergy, who were watching proceedings.
The case was at one point adjourned for more than an hour while the judges rose "to consider their decision" as they wanted "some time" to look at the situation, trial observers told BosNewsLife.
When they returned the court confirmed the death sentence.
While it was not clear what happened during that hour, judges and others involved in the case are known to have been pressured by Muslim hardliners.
Two politicians, the governor of Pakistan's Punjab province, Salman Taseer, and Christian federal minister Shahbaz Bhatti, were even assassinated in 2011 for criticizing the country's blasphemy legislation under which she was sentenced.
The Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS), which defended Bibi, said it "intends to submit a final appeal to the Supreme Court within the allotted 30 days."
However CLAAS warned this process "could last a number of years".
"I am very disappointed with today’s result and my thoughts and prayers are with Asia’s family" said Nasir Saeed, a CLAAS director. "It is not surprising that the judges were swayed by pressure from local influential Muslims, but I had hoped that justice would prevail and that the case would be judged based on its merits" he told BosNewsLife.
“While the rest of the world condemns such draconian laws, Pakistan continues to persecute its minorities simply because of their religion," he added.
Saeed said he now remains "hopeful" that the Supreme Court judges "will look at the case objectively" and allow the final appeal by CLAAS Christian lawyers, "eventually acquitting Asia.”
Bibi, 45, has been in detention since 2009 after she reportedly told Muslim co-workers that Jesus Christ is alive. She made the remarks while working in the fields for a Muslim landowner, according to investigators.
"Our Christ sacrificed His life on the cross for our sins…Our Christ is alive," Bibi reportedly said. She spoke amid a dispute with non-Christian colleagues when she attempted to drink water from a well owned by Muslim, Christians said.
Besides "insulting Prophet Muhammad" she was accused "of contaminating" the well by Muslims. She was charged with blasphemy and a lower court eventually sentenced her to death by hanging.
Bibi has denied wrongdoing.
She is among several Christians prosecuted for Blasphemy. In April a Pakistani Christian couple, Shafaqat Emmanuel, a crippled 38-year-old man, and his wife Shagufta Kausar, 42, were found guilty of sending a text message insulting the Prophet Muhammad.
They were sentenced to death just days after Sawan Masih was given the same sentence for allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad during a conversation with a Muslim friend in the city of Lahore's Joseph Colony area last year.
Amid the prosecution an increasing number of Christians are fleeing Pakistan, including to Pakistan.
Earlier this week Sri Lanka threatend to deport at least least five Christian families, but at the last moment at least two Christians and their families were allowed two stay after intervention by the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR, BosNewsLife learned from sources involved in their cases.
It was not immediately clear Thursday, October 16, whether all Christians would be able to stay, despite fears they may be killed by Muslim extremists or be executed for blasphemy, said Christians who asked to remain anonymous amid security fears.
Among the refugees is a pastor who was reportedly kidnapped and beaten by influential Muslim militants who told him that they would kill him, next time.
"I am very glad to inform you that the UNHCR has recognized us as a genuine refugees...We had a tough time in last 24 hours but the conclusion is best and all our worries and fears have gone, the pain and torture we been through is also no more remembered," said a couple who asked to be only identified as F and T.
It was a far cry from earlier this week when they were reportedly picked up at their home by the immigration service. "When they came we begged them for mercy and said that we have small kids with us. F offered them that they can take him, but they said, they must deport the whole family," T said.
The couple described the detention center "as the worst place" they have ever seen with up to "40 men packed in one room and another separate cell for women and kids."
Men and women have "all kinds of problems, some smoking all night, laughing, and watching movies in loud volume" with "mosquitoes, bed bugs, cigarettes smoke in the room and no food for 24 hours."
Food that was eventually served was difficult to eat, with children even saying they were "not hungry."
While F and T and their children were eventually allowed to return home after UNHCR intervention, concerns remain over other Christian refugees facing deportation to Pakistan following Thursday's ruling.
Activists told BosNewsLife that an increasing number of devoted Christians face either persecution by Muslim militants or prosecution by authorities for blasphemy. Pakistan has come under international pressure to tackle the blasphemy laws, while Sri Lanka has been urged to allow Christians to stay in the heavily Islamic nation.
Why people are ready to suffer for Christ? Want to know more what they believe? Click here
(BosNewsLife (2004-2014) is the first truly independent news agency covering persecuted Christians. It has been 'Breaking the News for Compassionate Professionals' since May 2004).
Will you help BosNewsLife to remain a voice of the voiceless? Click here for a subscription.
Follow us via Twitter