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It began in the summer of 2009 as a quarrel over water in a sweltering farm field in the province of Punjab. When the heated words were over, Asia Noreen Bibi was charged under the strict blasphemy laws of predominantly Muslim Pakistan.
A Christian wife and mother, the woman commonly known as Asia Bibi was convicted by a district court last month of blaspheming the Prophet Muhammad. The punishment is mandatory death and Asia Bibi became the first female in Pakistan to be sentenced to hang for blasphemy.
Asia Bibi, a Roman Catholic, says she did not commit the crime. The case has drawn international condemnation, and Pope Benedict XVI has called for Asia Bibi's release.
But in a country where conservative religious forces are gathering strength, fundamentalists have called for her head.
At a recent protest after Friday's prayers in Rawalpindi, a small crowd of bearded men chanted: "Asia, the blasphemer: Hang her, hang her."
Such protesters who often eclipse the country's more peaceful majority views are passionate that Pakistan's blasphemy law should not be questioned let alone changed.
The leader of the demonstration, Mohammad Saleem of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan Party, said: "Our country is Islamic and we are Muslims. We want justice."
Under the law, defiling the Quran merits imprisonment for life. Defaming the sacred name of Muhammad merits death. The penalties were introduced in the 1980s under the dictatorship of General Zia Al Haq, who critics say used the measures to prop up his rule using Islam.
The protesting men pledged to "protect the dignity" of the Prophet and "to sacrifice our lives for Muhammad."
No one ever convicted of blasphemy in Pakistan has been executed.
Still, the life of Asia Bibi, a mother of two and stepmother of three, is at stake. A cleric has offered 500,000 rupees -- roughly $5,800 -- to anyone who kills the jailed woman, who is being held in the district jail in the city of Sheikhupura. The Taliban also have threatened retribution should she be spared, yet another sign the case has become a rallying point for extremists.
A Frightened Family
Within 24 hours of the Taliban warning, Asia Bibi's family fled their home in the Christian colony of Gloria in Sheikhupura, a 90-minute drive from Lahore.
On a recent night, Christmas carolers appeared in the darkened lanes of Gloria, an unexpected sight in a country where less than 2 percent of the population is Christian.
Community leaders helped NPR locate family members and set up an interview in a safe house with Ashiq Masih, Asia Bibi's husband.
Looking drawn, Masih, a poor kiln worker who makes bricks for a living, said that his wife and family are in grave danger.
"Even if my wife does come out [of jail], she could be killed," he said, adding that her case is not the first of its kind.
"And it's not just Christians who are targeted. Muslims have also been charged with blasphemy. Christians are easy to implicate, though. If they talk about religion, they are accused of blasphemy. If a Christian touches the Holy Quran, he is accused of a crime. And here, petty issues get twisted into accusations of blasphemy," Masih said.
Human rights groups say that the case highlights the treatment of religious minorities in Sunni Muslim-dominated Pakistan.
At trial, Asia Bibi's defense attorney called the charges a "fanciful drama" by a Muslim majority arrayed against a Christian minority.
When Asia Bibi offered her fellow farm hands water, they refused on the grounds that as a Christian she had made it impure. Both sides stoutly defended their faiths, and Asia Bibi was charged with blasphemy.
The Rev. Samson Dilawar, a parish priest who was wounded by gunmen in 1997 and saw his Catholic church burned to the ground in 2005, has been threatened by anonymous callers for assisting Asia Bibi.
He says she is not safe in prison and that the killing last year of a young Christian man accused of blasphemy in nearby Sialkot is a cautionary tale.
"That boy was killed in the jail. She can also be murdered in the jail as well. She can be killed anytime. So anything can happen," Dilawar said.
In July, two brothers who were Christian walked out of the Faisalabad courthouse facing charges of blasphemy when gunmen opened fire and killed them.
In the summer of 2009 in the town of Gojra, also in Punjab province, mobs attacked the Christian quarter, torching homes on rumors that members of the community had torn pages of the Quran. At least a half a dozen people burned to death.
Christians in Pakistan are ghettoized in the poorest housing, relegated to the most menial jobs and marginalized to the lowest socio-economic class.
Political analyst Rasul Bakhsh Rais says the blasphemy laws are nothing more than a "big stick" to intimidate "the other" -- Christians and other religious minorities -- into submission.
"And in most of the cases, it has become an instrument of personal vendettas, revenge and settling personal scores. And it is why this law needs to be revisited and re-examined," he said.
The blasphemy law has "bred intolerance in Pakistan," Rais said, for Christians, Hindus and members of the Ahmadi Muslim sect, whom Pakistan's constitution prohibits from even being called Muslims.
Blasphemy Cases Rise
Statistics from the National Commission for Justice and Peace, a human rights organization of the Catholic Church in Pakistan, show that accusations of blasphemy are on the rise, with more than 110 people accused last year.
Punjab Gov. Salmaan Taseer helped spur what has become Pakistan's first public debate over the blasphemy law when he visited Asia Bibi in jail last month and later told President Asif Ali Zardari she deserved clemency.
The president has ordered a review of the case, but a quick resolution to this emotional debate is not at hand.
"Before this, nobody was prepared to discuss this law. It will set the mullahs at your throat. And I said that she should be pardoned, and this is a travesty and shame that a poor woman like this who hasn't the means to defend herself [against] trumped-up charges," said Taseer, who is Muslim. "And in a country where your prime minister is Muslim, your president is Muslim, you're 95 percent Muslim -- what is the need for laws like this?"
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have called for the law's repeal. A bill in parliament would shorten sentences and require a showing of criminal intent.
Such recommendations risk serious reprisals. But Lahore University of Management Sciences political scientist Rais says that wavering in the face of a fundamentalist backlash would damage Pakistan even more.
"Who is going to visit Pakistan? Who is going to invest in this country? Who is going to buy the goods produced by the Pakistanis? It hurts Pakistan in a big way," Rais said.
The Punjab's outspoken governor is resolute.
"Frankly, it's up to God to decide whether I'm a Muslim or not," Taseer said, "not some illiterate mullah to decide I'm a Muslim or not."
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