LAHORE, Pakistan (RNS) — Hard-line Islamic leaders were furious at the Supreme Court of Pakistan’s decision on Wednesday (Oct. 31) to acquit Asia Bibi, a Christian mother who has been on death row since 2010 after being accused of blaspheming against the Prophet Muhammad.
Addressing a protest in front of the provincial assembly in Lahore, firebrand cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, founder of the far-right Islamist political party Tehreek-e-Labbaik, and his associate, Afzal Qadri, said Muslims should rise against the military and the government of Pakistan for releasing a blasphemer.
“All soldiers of Pakistan army must rise against the army chief, General Qamar Bajwa, and the judges who gave the verdict in favor of Asia Bibi should be killed,” said Qadri.
Protesters in other major cities stormed the streets, carrying sticks and blocking roads with sit-ins.
In a short video message after Bibi’s acquittal, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan issued a clear warning to the religious groups.
“The state will not cow down to threats and we will fulfill our responsibility of protecting the life and property of people,” he said. “I am telling you, do not take on the state. The state will exercise its power if you so as much as even decide to incite any kind of violence at a time when the whole country is trying to rise together. Don’t force us into taking action.”
The appeal to rebellion and government threat of a crackdown came after the country’s top court released a 56-page verdict finding Bibi innocent of blasphemy charges, which were leveled after she was accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad during an argument with her colleagues over drinking from a bucket meant for Muslims. The mother of two children and three stepchildren, she denied the allegations.
Blasphemy cases are increasingly common in Pakistan. Adopted under British rule, they carried a maximum sentence of two years. But in the 1980s, the country’s military leaders made the punishments harsher, with sentences of life imprisonment and death, to garner support among Islamic conservatives.
“Pakistan is an Islamic state. Here, people should abide by our laws. If Christians or Ahmadis have issues living here, they can leave and go to Israel,” said Mohammad Zahir, 29, a Tehreek-e-Labbaik supporter in Lahore. “Here, people will live how the Quran tells them.”
A total of 633 Muslims, 494 Ahmadi Muslims, 187 Christians and 21 Hindus have been charged under the blasphemy rules since 1987, the National Commission for Justice and Peace, a Catholic group, said earlier this year. Those numbers do not include vigilante killings and lynchings that occur in remote areas where the central government has little authority.
Prosecutors decided to seek the maximum penalty – death – for Bibi. If they had been successful, her death would have been the first time the government executed someone for defiling the prophet.
The court ordered Bibi, 51, released from prison, declaring that she is innocent because prosecutors failed to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt.
“She appears to be a person, in the words of Shakespeare’s King Lear, ‘more sinned against than sinning,'” said the judges’ verdict, which also quoted the Quran and Islamic scholars.
Bibi’s 18-year-old daughter, Eisham Ashiq, described the verdict as an answer to her family’s prayers. “This is the most wonderful moment. I can’t wait to hug my mother and then celebrate with my family. I am grateful to God for listening to our prayers,” said Ashiq.
Facing routine extremist religious persecution, Pakistan’s Christian community saw the ruling as a vindication of their human rights. The second-largest religious minority in Pakistan, Christians make up around 2 percent of the country’s population of 210 million.
“Today is like the dawn of new hope for oppressed minorities,” said Neville Kyrke-Smith, national director of Aid to the Church in Need, a group that advocates for Christians around the world. “It is important that justice is not just seen but is done.”
Those who spoke in support of Bibi over the years faced violence.
Punjab Gov. Salmaan Taseer, who lobbied for a presidential pardon for Bibi, was gunned down by his own security officer in 2011. A month later, Pakistani Minister of Religious Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti, a vocal critic of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, was also shot dead.
The government on Wednesday dispatched troops to Christian neighborhoods in case of Muslim reprisals.
“I am extremely happy for Asia. She is one of us and her story tells how tomorrow it could be any one of us who will be imprisoned for being a minority,” said Emanuel Khan, 24, a shopkeeper in Lahore. “Honestly, looking at the situation unfold, I am scared too for my family. Our neighborhood of Youhanabad, which is the biggest Christian locale in the city, is surrounded by paramilitary forces ever since the court verdict came in. It is tense here.”
Wilson Chowdhry, chairman of the British Pakistani Christian Association, said the reaction to the verdict and Bibi’s suffering – she was in solitary confinement for most of her time in prison – were indications of the intolerance toward minorities in Pakistan.
“Asia Bibi has endured almost 10 years of brutal incarceration in isolation. The world has watched her suffer. Her freedom can hardly be called justice, and nothing will ever compensate her for her lost years,” said Chowdhry.
Her family told AFP earlier this month that the blasphemy case could force the family to leave the country.
“Living in Pakistan for us is very difficult,” her husband, Ashiq Mesih, said. “We don’t go out of our home and if we go, we come out very carefully.”