ISLAMABAD - Pakistan's most influential Sunni Muslim alliance urged the government Friday not to pardon a Christian mother sentenced to death for blasphemy, warning that it would lead to nationwide anarchy.
Politicians and conservative clerics are at loggerheads on whether President Asif Ali Zardari should pardon Asia Bibi, a mother of five sentenced to hang for defaming the Prophet Mohammed under controversial blasphemy laws. While a growing number of moderate politicians have backed calls for clemency for Bibi, religious conservatives have organised a rival campaign.
"The pardon would lead to anarchy in the country," the head of Sunni Ittehad Council, Sahibzada Fazal Kareem, told AFP.
"Our stand is very clear that this punishment cannot be waived."
Kareem said that the alliance would lead protests nationwide on Friday against any moves to pardon Bibi.
The council opposes Taliban militants, which are fighting government troops in parts of northwest Pakistan, and has also organised a protest march against deadly attacks on Sufi shrines blamed on Islamist hardliners.
Rights activists say Pakistan's controversial blasphemy law, under which the offence is punishable by death, encourages Islamist extremism in a Muslim country on the front line of the US-led war on Al-Qaeda.
Minority affairs minister Shahbaz Bhatti presented a clemency plea to Zardari late Thursday on the grounds that the case against Bibi was based only on personal enmity.
Pope Benedict XVI has also called for Bibi's release and said Christians in Pakistan were "often victims of violence and discrimination."
Bibi was arrested in June 2009 after Muslim women labourers refused to drink from a bowl of water she was asked to fetch while out working in the fields.
Days later, the women complained that she made derogatory remarks about the Prophet Mohammed. Bibi was set upon by a mob, arrested by police and sentenced on November 8.
Rights activists and pressure groups say it is the first time that a woman had been sentenced to hang in Pakistan for blasphemy. Only around three percent of Pakistan's population of 167 million are estimated to be non-Muslim.