Islamic Extremists Protest Efforts to Change Blasphemy Laws and Free Christian

Islamic protests have erupted in Pakistan over possible changes to the nation's notorious blasphemy laws.

Sunni Muslim clerics organized a 24-hour strike across Pakistan on Friday against amending blasphemy laws that are currently being used to sentence Christian Asia Bibi to death.

The protests were staged in Islamabad, Lahore, Karachi, Pershawar and Quetta after their Friday prayers. The government of the largely Muslim country has since backed off efforts to soften the laws in response to the protest.

The global community has criticized the blasphemy laws for creating an environment of persecution and oppression minorities.

The law, which dates back to the 1980s, penalizes blasphemers of Islamic prophet Mohammed with death. A similar law punishes those who defile the Quran with life imprisonment. Critics say these rules are being abused.

According to the National Commission for Justice and Peace, a human rights organization of the Catholic Church in Pakistan, accusations of blasphemy rose to more than 110 during the year 2010.

Prior to the protests, the country's leadership had quietly been reconsidering the Sharia-based laws. Paskistan's Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, publicly declared that blasphemy victim Bibi is innocent. President Asif Ali Zardari was also reportedly considering revisions to the country's blasphemy laws, according Catholic foreign news service AsiaNews.

Muslim extremists have tried to thwart such actions by offering a money for Bibi's death and threatening attacks. A cleric has already offered 500,000 rupees – roughly $5,800 – to anyone who kills the Pakistani Christian mother and step-mother of five. The Taliban also has threatened retribution should she be spared.

Global pressure continues to mount. Raza Anjum, a British councilor from the U.K. city of Saffron Waldon in Essex, went to Pakistan during the Christmas season to try to secure 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.

Anjum also held a press conference on December 23 with members of the Pakistani and international press to discuss his attempts to secure Bibi's release.

Bibi, the first the woman to be sentenced to death under the blasphemy law, continues to sit in prison. She spent Christmas in jail while her family of five children and a husband are currently in hiding, fearing similar persecution.

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