Pakistani Christian mother of five Asia Bibi is spending her seventh Christmas in prison after her death sentence appeal was put on hold in October when a judge abruptly recused himself from hearing her case.
Bibi, 45, was sentenced to death in 2010 on allegations of blasphemy after two Muslim co-workers accused her of insulting the Muslim prophet Muhammad, something which she denies.
Bibi's blasphemy allegation stems from an altercation in June 2009 that she had with a group of Muslim women in the town of Sheikhupura in the Punjab province. As the women were picking berries, they became enraged when Bibi drank from the same water bowl that Muslims drank out of.
Since Bibi was a Christian, the women considered her unclean. After an argument between them ensued, the Muslim women went to the police and accused Bibi of saying something along the lines of "My Christ died for me, what did Muhammad do for you?"
Bibi was supposed to find out in October at a final appeal hearing at Pakistan's Supreme Court whether or not she would be executed, but that decision was delayed indefinitely after one of the senior judges, who was set to preside over her appeal, suddenly resigned.
Local media said that Justice Iqbal Hameed recused himself from the case without giving a specific reason.
William Stark, a regional manager for South Asia for International Christian Concern, which advocates for persecuted Christians around the world, said in a phone interview with The Christian Post that Bibi's struggle is "the premier case for why blasphemy laws are a problem."
Bibi's case, as it now stands, is in what he calls a "wait-and-see" period.
"Hopefully in 2017, the Pakistani Supreme Court will form a new bench and will be able to hear her case," Stark said. "And, frankly, if the case is actually heard on the merits, the Supreme Court has no other option but to find for her and actually let her go."
Stark told CP that he's somewhat optimistic for Bibi's case based on recent court rulings on the rights of religious minorities and conversations he's had with her attorney, Saif Malook, who is a Muslim.
If the court rejects her appeal, however, Bibi would be the first woman in Pakistan to be executed for blasphemy.
"Asia's case is very much a lightning rod within Pakistan itself," Stark said, referencing the 2011 assassination of Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer, a supporter of Bibi who had planned to reform the country's strict blasphemy law.
Taseer had been accused by hardline groups of committing blasphemy himself by criticizing the law, which is supposed to protect Muslim sentiments, but according to human rights groups is often used to settle personal scores and oppress Christians and other religious minorities.
"People who get close to it [Bibi's case] are very scared for their lives," he added. "It's a case that really kind of encapsulates the abuse of blasphemy laws generally. And it's such high profile that even to bring it up you're inviting controversy. If you're bringing up Asia Bibi in a public area, it's not a wise decision."
CP reported in October that Pakistani Christians are worried that justice will not be done.
"Every day that passes I fear that she will either be killed in custody and that her death will be masked as a natural death, or that she will finally fail her Supreme Court hearing — as this would be the most popular decision in a country riven with hate," wrote Wilson Chowdhry, chairman of the British Pakistani Christian Association on his group's website.
"Sadly that position is even held by much of the Judiciary (officials) who have also been blinded by the hate agenda promulgated through media and the education system in Pakistan."
As Bibi has been sitting in prison for over six years, reports have indicated that the health of the 51-year-old mother has been deteriorating. A report from last June indicated that Bibi has had trouble walking and has also vomited up blood inside of her jail cell.
Less than 2 percent of Pakistanis identify as Christians. The country remains among the worst persecutors of Christians, ranking sixth on Open Doors USA's 2015 World Watch List.