ISLAMABAD – Pakistan's president will not immediately pardon a Christian woman sentenced to die for insulting Islam but may do so later if an appeals court delays her case too long, an official said Thursday.
The case against Asia Bibi has inflamed religious passions in Pakistan. Hard-line Muslims demonstrated again Thursday against any pardon for her, and minority Christians held their own protests calling for abolishment of the blasphemy law, which critics say is misused by some to settle personal scores and persecute minorities.
Pope Benedict XVI has appealed for the release of Bibi, a 45-year-old mother of five who has said she was wrongly accused by a group of Muslim women with a grudge against her. The pope said her case highlights the persecution of Pakistani Christians, who make up less than 5 percent of the country's 175 million people.
Bibi, 45, is the first woman condemned to die under the blasphemy law. She has been jailed for 18 months and was sentenced Nov. 8 to hang for insulting Islam's Prophet Mohammed.
Her lawyer has filed an appeal with the Lahore High Court, and President Asif Ali Zardari has decided to let the appeal process play out instead of immediately pardoning her, said Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, who met with Zardari on Thursday.
Pardoning Bibi would carry political risk for Zardari, whose broadly secular ruling party relies on the support of Islamist groupings in Parliament.
However, the president agreed to pardon Bibi later if the appeal case is unduly delayed, said Bhatti, who delivered a report to the president Thursday recommending Bibi be immediately freed. Zardari's spokesman could not be reached Thursday.
Bhatti said Zardari did not specify any deadline but he believes the president "will not wait months or weeks."
About 100 Muslim demonstrators rallied Thursday in the central city of Multan, warning against any presidential pardon for Bibi and burning an effigy of the Punjab provincial governor who has supported her appeal.
"We will resist if the government moves against the court verdict and attempts to amend the blasphemy law," warned Tariq Naeemullah, a leader of Citizen Front of Multan.
Dozens of Christians held their own protest in the southern city of Karachi, carrying a large crucifix and placards reading "Down with Black Law" and "Stop Discrimination Against Religious Minorities."
Pakistan's higher courts have always struck down lower courts' death penalties in past blasphemy cases. Still, Bhatti said many who are falsely accused are unjustly jailed for months and often targeted by violence. Two Christian brothers in Punjab were gunned down earlier this year as they were leaving a court hearing on a blasphemy charge.
The minorities minister acknowledges that repealing the blasphemy law is politically unfeasible but has proposed changes to it including making it a crime to falsely accuse someone, abolishing the death penalty for the crime and requiring initial cases to be heard by higher courts instead of local ones.
Associated Press writers Ashraf Khan in Karachi and Khalid Tanveer in Multan contributed to this report.