Fears are growing for the safety of Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman condemned to death under Pakistani blasphemy laws, after a religious preacher and a major newspaper issued a call for ordinary Muslims to behead her if the courts do not carry out the hanging.
A Punjabi court found the mother of five guilty of insulting the prophet Muhammad last month, acting on complaints from her Muslim neighbours. She was the first woman to be sentenced to hang under a harsh 1980s law that is frequently abused to persecute minorities.
The case has inflamed public opinion, drawing protests from both the liberal minority and religious extremists.
On Friday the imam of Peshawar’s oldest mosque, Maulana Yousaf Qureshi, offered a 500,000 rupee (£3,800) reward to anyone who killed Bibi if the court fails to hang her.
The call to violence was endorsed by Nawa-i-Waqt, Pakistan‘s second largest selling newspaper, which yesterday hailed Qureshi as a leader of Muslims. “The punishment handed down to Aasia Bibi will be carried out in one manner or the other,” the Urdu daily said.
The extremists have been supported by conservative judges in the Lahore high court, which last week blocked an offer by President Asif Ali Zardari to pardon the woman. Legal experts have questioned the legality of the order.