Explore Pakistan's blasphemy laws, please

A Christian woman in Pakistan has been sentenced to death for blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad. That's a hard story to cover. The Telegraph report about Asia Bibi, a 45-year-old mother-of-five who denies the charge and says she is being persecuted for her faith, includes these details:

Ashiq Masih, her husband, said he had not had the heart to break the news to two of their children.

"I haven't told two of my younger daughters about the court's decision," he said. "They asked me many times about their mother but I can't get the courage to tell them that the judge has sentenced their mother to capital punishment for a crime she never committed." Mrs Bibi has been held in prison since June last year.

The court heard she had been working as a farmhand in fields with other women, when she was asked to fetch drinking water.

Some of the other women - all Muslims - refused to drink the water as it had been brought by a Christian and was therefore "unclean", according to Mrs Bibi's evidence, sparking a row.

The incident was forgotten until a few days later when Mrs Bibi said she was set upon by a mob.

The police were called and took her to a police station for her own safety.

Shahzad Kamran, of the Sharing Life Ministry Pakistan, said: "The police were under pressure from this Muslim mob, including clerics, asking for Asia to be killed because she had spoken ill of the Prophet Mohammed.

"So after the police saved her life they then registered a blasphemy case against her." He added that she had been held in isolation for more than a year before being sentenced to death on Monday.

The Telegraph story is very thorough, including the fact that while no one has ever been executed under Pakistan's blasphemy laws, as many as 10 people have been murdered while on trial for it. Compare that to the CNN report which simply mentioned that the death sentences are rarely carried out.

Generally the foreign press did a bit better on these reports. For instance, Agence France-Presse mentioned the two Christian brothers who were shot and killed last year while on trial for blasphemy. And here's the BBC story about those killings.

The one thing that I was curious about -- and didn't find an answer to in any of the stories -- is whether Bibi's gender will have a role in her eventual punishment. For instance, while the penalty for males who apostatize is widely believed to be death, for females there are more options, including life imprisonment. Is Pakistan's blasphemy law similarly structured with different penalties for males and females?

And on that note, it would be nice to get a bit more understanding of where these blasphemy laws come from, how they're justified, and how Muslims inside and outside Pakistan view them. Sure, it's good to know that human rights groups around the world condemn these laws. But how are these laws viewed within Muslim communities? It would help to find out a bit more about that.

Once again, there is no one Islam. There is no one unified approach to Sharia law, either. Readers need more facts to understand these clashes in beliefs within Islam.

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