A group working to protect Christians from blasphemy laws has said that international pressure on Pakistan is needed to overturn the death penalty handed to Christian mother of five Asia Bibi. Christian leaders in Pakistan have vowed to continue appealing the case and fighting for the mother's life.
"We continue to hope because, as Christians, our faith nourishes hope. We continue to pray for Asia Bibi and for her release, so that the Lord protects and comforts her. But there are many elements that are not conducive to optimism," said Haroon Barkat, director of the Masihi Foundation, in an interview with Fides News Agency on Tuesday.
Barkat, whose group works in Pakistan to protect Christians falsely accused of blasphemy, added that "international pressures and mobilization can be useful" in influencing the case. He said that above all, "the political will of the government and of the highest authorities in Pakistan is needed" to put an end to the many false blasphemy cases where Christians in Pakistan are persecuted.
Barkat expressed hopes that the Supreme Court will decide to overturn the death sentence handed to Bibi in 2010, which was upheld by Pakistan's second largest court last week.
Human rights and persecution watchdog groups have condemned Bibi's death sentence. The Christian mother was accused of blaspheming against Islam in a 2009 incident where she got into an argument with a group of Muslim women who were offended that she drank from the same water bowl as them.
Catholic leaders in Pakistan declared that they will be appealing the ruling at the country's Supreme Court, Catholic News Service reported.
"Like it or not, we have to accept the court order," said Father Emmanuel Yousaf Mani, director of the National (Catholic) Commission for Justice and Peace.
"The only option before us now is to appeal against the verdict. We have applied for a certified copy of the verdict. We will appeal against it in the Supreme Court," Mani said, adding Christians were praying for an acquittal.
Other groups, such as the Cecil & Iris Chaudhry Foundation, criticized the ruling for punishing Bibi on false charges.
"Bibi has wrongly been convicted of blasphemy. We remain optimistic that the rule of law will prevail and justice will be done (when the appeal is heard in the Supreme Court). For now that is our only hope," the Catholic advocacy group said.
The statement echoed International Christian Concern's comments that Bibi's case is an example of how Christians and other religious minorities in Pakistan are abused by the harsh implication of the blasphemy laws, which are often used to settle personal scores.
"Sadly, the vast majority of blasphemy accusations brought against Christians and others are false. Unfortunately, pressure from Islamic radical groups and general discrimination against Christians in Pakistan has transformed trial courts and now appeals courts into little more than rubber stamps for blasphemy accusations brought against Christians, regardless of the evidence brought to bear in the case," said ICC's Regional Manager for South Asia, William Stark.
Christians remain a distinct minority in Pakistan, making up only 1.5 percent of the nation's 180 million people, more than 96 percent of whom are Muslims.
International pressure, including petitions from several American politicians, such as Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, helped free Christian mother Meriam Ibrahim earlier this year in Sudan. Ibrahim had initially been sentenced to death for refusing to identify as a Muslim and for marrying her Christian husband, which sparked an international campaign for her release.