LAHORE, Pakistan – Around 250 hard-line Muslims staged a demonstration in the central Pakistani city of Lahore on Wednesday, warning the president not to pardon a Christian woman sentenced to death for insulting Islam.
They also denounced any attempt to change Pakistan's blasphemy law, which critics say is often misused to persecute Christians like Asia Bibi and other minorities.
Bibi's family is in hiding, and her husband said Wednesday that there have been threats on her life if she is released and a call from the mosque in their village to burn down their home — accusations denied by the local cleric who filed the original charge against Bibi.
The death sentence against the mother of five has prompted outrage from human rights groups and a personal appeal from Pope Benedict XVI for her freedom.
But hard-line Islamic groups in Pakistan have pushed back and some have even threatened officials in the past who suggested reforming or repealing the blasphemy law. These groups have significant power since politicians from the major parties rely on them for votes.
"We are ready to sacrifice our life for the Prophet Muhammad," chanted protesters in Lahore — many of whom were students from Islamic seminaries in the city.
The rally was organized by the Movement for Protection of the Prophet's Honor, a group of hard-line Sunni Muslims that was formed in 2001 to oppose changes in the blasphemy law.
Bibi, a 45-year-old mother of five, has said she was falsely accused by a group of Muslim women angry at a dispute over whether they could share the same water bowl. She has been jailed in the eastern province of Punjab since her initial arrest 1 1/2 years ago.
A court sentenced her Nov. 8 to hang after convicting her of insulting the prophet.
It is the first time a woman has been condemned to death under Pakistan's blasphemy law, often criticized as being abused to inflame religious extremism and settle personal grudges.
Her lawyer has filed an appeal with a higher court in Lahore, but she could also be pardoned by the president.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has asked for a review of the facts of the case, raising the possibility of a presidential pardon.
One of the strongest defenders of Bibi has been Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province, of which Lahore is the capital. Wednesday's protest took place in front of the governor's office and the demonstrators railed against him and others calling for Bibi's release.
"We are here to tell them that we will not let it happen," said Masoodur Rehman, one of the leaders of the group that organized the rally. "Only the court should decide her fate."
Bibi's husband, Ashiq Masih, said the family left their village after her arrest and his children haven't been to school in more than a year. He said the few supporters in his village have told him loudspeakers on the local mosque are blaring calls for his wife to be killed and their abandoned home burned down.
"We are in great danger," he said.
But the local cleric at the mosque who filed the original charge against Bibi, Mohammad Salim, denied the claims and said there have been no threats against the woman or her family. He also claimed that Bibi confessed to committing blasphemy after the quarrel with the Muslim women.
Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, who is preparing the report for Zardari on the case, said Wednesday that he would deliver his recommendations on Thursday. Bhatti has said he is convinced Bibi is innocent.
Pakistan's Christians, who make up less than 5 percent of the Muslim-majority country's 175 million people, are frequently the targets of accusers invoking the blasphemy law.
Bhatti says "dozens" of people — both Muslims and minorities — are sentenced to death under the law each year, although higher courts in each case have prevented any executions.
Those accused of blasphemy also are often targeted with violence.
In July, two Christian brothers accused of blasphemy were gunned down as they left court hearing in Punjab's eastern city of Faisalabad.
Last year, a 19-year-old Christian accused of desecrating a Quran, Islam's holy book, was found dead in his jail cell in Sialkot, another town in Punjab. Officials said at the time that he had hanged himself, but Christian groups said he was murdered.
Bhatti has long campaigned against the blasphemy law, which was introduced by President Gen. Zia ul-Haq's military regime in the 1980s to win the support of hard-line religious groups. Extremist Islamic groups threatened to behead Bhatti six months ago when he proposed changes to the law.
Bhatti said the government is considering calling a meeting of Islamic leaders, politicians, human rights organizations and representatives of minority groups to determine whether the law should be repealed or changed. He said he is dedicated to the effort despite danger to himself.
"I am not afraid of these threats," said Bhatti. "I am ready to sacrifice everything for the justice that I believe in."
Associated Press writer Babar Dogar contributed to this report.