LAHORE, Pakistan (BP)–A death sentence against a Pakistani mother of five is being appealed, according to attorneys for the Christian woman, Asia Noreen, who has been sentenced to die by hanging for allegedly speaking ill of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam.
“How can we expect a Christian to affirm a Muslim belief?” one of Noreen’s attorneys, Chaudhry Tahir Shahzad, told Compass Direct News in a Nov. 15 report.
Judge Naveed Ahmed Chaudhary of Pakistan’s Nankana Sahib district delivered the verdict Nov. 8 under Pakistan’s controversial “blasphemy” statute, the kind of law that would be legitimized internationally by a resolution before the United Nations condemning “defamation of religions.”
Asia Noreen’s husband and a human rights group have alleged that the judge was “bowing to pressure from Muslim extremists,” as phrased by Compass.
Shahzad told Compass that he and another attorney, Manzoor Qadir, have filed an appeal in the Lahore High Court in the capital of the Pakistani province of Punjab.
Noreen, 45, is the first woman to be sentenced to death under Pakistan’s blasphemy law.
Shahzad said Noreen was accused of denying that Muhammad was a prophet, among other allegations.
Asia (alternately spelled Aasya) Noreen has been jailed in isolation since June 2009 after she argued with fellow field workers who were trying to pressure her into renouncing Christianity. Her husband, Ashiq Masih, told Compass that the argument began after the wife of a village elder sent her to fetch water in Pakistan’s Nankana Sahib district, about 75 kilometers (47 miles) from Lahore.
The Muslim women told Noreen that it was sacrilegious to drink water collected by a non-Muslim, Masih said.
“My wife only said, ‘Are we not all humans?’ when the Muslim women rebuked her for her faith,” Masih, a field laborer, told Compass by telephone. “This led to an altercation.”
The women told Muslim cleric Muhammad Salim about the incident, and he filed a case with police five days later, on June 19, 2009, according to police. On that day, Masih said, the Muslim women suddenly raised a commotion, accusing Noreen of defaming Muhammad.
“Several Muslim men working in the nearby fields reached the spot and forced their way into our house, where they tortured Asia and the children,” said Masih, who confirmed that he and his wife have five children — four girls and a boy, the oldest daughter 20.
Masih said police arrived and took his wife into custody, presumably for her own protection.
“They saved Asia’s life, but then later a case was registered against her under Sections 295-B and C [blaspheming the Quran and Muhammad, respectively] at the Nankana [district] police station on the complaint of Muhammad Salim, the local imam [prayer leader] of the village,” he said.
“Asia has been convicted on false charges,” Masih said. “We have never, ever insulted the prophet Muhammad or the Quran.”
Salim reportedly claimed that Noreen confessed to speaking derogatorily of Islam’s prophet and apologized. Under immense pressure from local Muslims, the district judge ruled out the possibility that Noreen was falsely accused, according to Masih and Sohail Johnson of Sharing Life Ministry, which is active in prisons and has followed Noreen’s case from the beginning. In spite of repeated efforts by the Muslim women to pressure her into renouncing her faith, the judge also reportedly ruled “there were no mitigating circumstances.”
The judge also fined Noreen 100,000 rupees (US$1,150), according to the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement.
Ataul Saman of the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) said lower court verdicts in blasphemy cases usually are overturned by higher courts. Lower court proceedings take place under intense pressure, he said, with local Muslims gathering outside and chanting slogans to pressure judges. Saman added that NCJP research showed that up to 80 percent of blasphemy charges are filed against people to settle personal scores.
Rights groups have long criticized Pakistan’s blasphemy laws as too easily used to settle grudges or oppress religious minorities, such as the estimated 4 million-plus Christians among Pakistan’s population of 184.7 million.
To date no one has been executed for blasphemy in Pakistan, as most are freed on appeal after suffering for years in prison. Vigilantes, however, have killed at least 10 people accused of blasphemy, rights groups estimate.
Noreen was convicted under Section 295-C of the defamation statutes for alleged derogatory comments about Muhammad, which is punishable by death, though life imprisonment is also possible. Section 295-B makes willful desecration of the Quran or its use in a derogatory manner punishable with life imprisonment. Section 295-A of the defamation law prohibits injuring or defiling places of worship and “acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class of citizens.” It is punishable by life imprisonment, which in Pakistan is 25 years.
Between 1986 and August 2009, at least 974 people have been charged with defiling the Quran or insulting Muhammad, according to the National Commission for Justice and Peace. Those charged included 479 Muslims, 340 Ahmadis, 119 Christians, 14 Hindus and 10 from other religions.
Johnson of Sharing Life Ministry said he was impressed by Noreen’s continued faith.
“A week before the verdict, I went to visit Asia in jail,” Johnson recounted. “I asked her what she was expecting. She told me that Jesus would rescue her from this fake case.”
The verdict was shocking in that no one was expecting a death sentence for a woman, Johnson said.
Masih agreed. “Asia was hoping that the judge would free her and she would come home to be with us, but this conviction has dashed our hopes for now,” the husband said.
Authorities have not allowed him or other family members to visit his wife since the sentencing, Masih said.
“We don’t know yet how she is, but we trust the Lord,” he said. “Asia is suffering for Jesus, and He will not forsake her.”
Adapted from a report by Asher John and Brian MacDonald for Compass Direct News (www.compassdirect.org). Based in Santa Ana, Calif., Compass provides reports on Christians worldwide who are persecuted for their faith.