Without leaving her jail cell in the Punjab province of Pakistan, Asia Bibi, the Christian mother of five who has been sentenced to death by a regional court for allegedly blaspheming Muhammad, will be at the center of a tense Christmas weekend. Over a year and half ago, Ms. Bibi was involved in a dispute with Muslim neighbors who accused her of violating laws forbidding negative speech about Muhammad. Even though she denied the charges, she has been jailed since then and her plight has brought international attention to Pakistan's laws regulating religious speech. The Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury have called for Bibi's release.
Local Muslim extremist groups have vowed violence if she is pardoned and one Peshawar cleric even issued a $5,000 reward for anyone who executes Ms. Bibi. Islamic political groups opposed to her release have vowed a strike on Christmas Eve and then again on December 31, while Christian groups plan to protest the misuse of Pakistan's blasphemy laws on Christmas day.
Raza Anjum, a British public official in Pakistan trying to secure Bibi's release believes the situation over the Christmas weekend could be quite difficult, with the threat of violence high.
Anjum, a councilor from the UK city of Saffron Waldon in Essex is now in Lahore, Pakistan to try to win Ms. Bibi's release. Since his arrival in Pakistan, he has met with the Minister for Minority Affairs and plans to meet with the Governor of the province where Bibi is jailed and with Pakistan's Prime Minister, Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani over the next several days.
Via phone interview, Mr. Anjum explained his mission. "The message I am carrying is that Asia Bibi should be immediately released and that her family should be given protection as well," he said.
According to Mr. Anjum, there will be a press conference on December 23 for members of the Pakistani and international press to discuss his attempts to secure Bibi's release. About Bibi's case, Anjum said,"This is just a personal dispute where the blasphemy laws have been misapplied." He believes she is innocent and is being persecuted for her minority Christian beliefs.
Anjum said that Bibi's death sentence was issued in a lower court but has been appealed to the next level of the judiciary. The appeal date has not been announced but the case could go to the highest level in Pakistan.
"If the high court comes out with a similar verdict as the lower court, then it will go to the Supreme Court. It is a long and bureaucratic process which is why we want the government to pardon her now," Anjum said.
Anjum says the planned protests and strike come at a very tense time in the area.
"There have been a lot of protests going on by extremist groups because they are trying to politicize the issue and distorting the actual facts and the truth behind this case. They've been protesting quite regularly, last week we had about three protests," he explained.
As the Christmas holiday approaches, Mr. Anjum hopes his efforts can secure safety and justice for Asia Bibi. He plans to visit with her in jail on Christmas Day.
Regarding the situation, a US State Department official told me recently, "We are aware of the case of Asia Bibi and have raised our concerns about this case and others at the highest levels in the Government of Pakistan."