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Aasia Bibi blasphemy case a symbol of Pakistan's religious intolerance

The Pakistani government's handling of the case of Aasia Bibi, a Christian facing the death penalty for insulting the Quran, indicates a willingness to let extremists have their way.

By Issam AhmedCorrespondent / December 13, 2010

Ashif Masih (r.) husband of Christian woman Aasia Bibi who had been sentenced to death, and daughters Sidra Shahzadi and Isham Ashiq listen to Pakistani minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, unseen, during a meeting in Islamabad, Pakistan on Wednesday, Nov. 24.

Anjum Naveed/AP

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Islamabad, Pakistan

The Pakistani government’s refusal to repeal or amend the country’s blasphemy laws have renewed concerns about its resolve to tackle extremism at home.

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The key symbol in the matter is Aasia Bibi, a 45-year-old Christian woman currently facing the death penalty on the charge of insulting the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad. Government officials originally promised to pardon but she continues to languish in jail. Some analysts say that the government's apparent willingness to bow to Islamist extremists in the matter could undermine the country's gains in the ongoing battle against the Taliban.

"The government has been trying to rely too much on symbolism, as a substitute for substantive measures” says Ashar Rehman, a senior editor at Dawn, Pakistan’s leading-English daily.

“They are giving medals to people like [Myanmar's dissident political leader] Aung San Suu Kyi, and encouraging certain cultural events, but are not allowed the leeway to just do something in the areas where it really matters,” he says, citing what he sees as the undue influence of the country’s conservative military establishment.

The ongoing imprisonment of Ms. Bibi has divided the country along ideological lines, and ignited a debate about the future of the country’s blasphemy laws. The existence of blasphemy laws date back to British rule in the 19th century, though the laws were strengthened after independence. Critics say that today the laws are misused to persecute minorities.

Awaiting a court verdict

The mother of five has already spent a year and a half in jail on charges of insulting Islam. Critics say she's a victim of the legal system. According to court documents, Bibi was first accused of blasphemy by a Muslim woman who took offense at being served water by a Christian.

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At first, senior government figures said Bibi would receive a presidential pardon. Then the Lahore High Court on Nov. 28 issued an order to prevent a presidential pardon for Bibi. Amid it all, Islamist groups have called for her execution and law minister Babar Awan announced the government won't repeal the blasphemy law used to convict her.

Bib now awaits a higher court’s verdict which will determine whether her execution, originally planned for Nov. 8, goes ahead.

The government's mixed signals show a “wavering commitment to creating an environment in which Pakistanis can tackle sensitive religious and social issues without fearing an extremist backlash,” wrote Huma Yusuf, a Pakistan scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, in Pakistan's Dawn newspaper.

Why the government is equivocating

The government's equivocation may be due to the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) need to balance its own principles with the interests of its more conservative coalition partners, as well as pressure from Pakistan’s military establishment.

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