ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The uproar surrounding Asia Bibi — a Pakistani Christian woman who was acquitted of blasphemy charges and released from death row but remains at a secret location for her protection — has drawn attention to the plight of the country’s Christians.
The minority, among Pakistan’s poorest, has faced an increasingly intolerant atmosphere in this Muslim-majority nation where radical religious and sectarian groups have become more prominent in recent years.
Here is a look at some of the issues involved.
WHY HER RELEASE IGNITED AN UPROAR
Bibi’s Oct. 31 acquittal by Pakistan’s supreme court triggered large-scale protests, with religious extremists demanding the 54-year-old mother of five be publicly executed — and that the three judges who set her free also be put to death.
Her ordeal started in 2009 after two fellow women farmworkers refused to drink from the same container as a Christian, and later said Bibi had insulted the Prophet Muhammad. The claim led to her arrest and 2010 death sentence on blasphemy charges. In Pakistan, a mere accusation of blasphemy has caused riots, even lynching.
Rights groups have said Pakistan’s blasphemy law is often used as an excuse to settle scores, or as a weapon against religious minorities, including Shiite Muslims who are at times targeted by Sunni Muslim militants as heretics.
Bibi has been in hiding in Islamabad since her release earlier this week. Her family says she will leave Pakistan as soon as possible because of death threats against her.
WHO THE PAKISTANI CHRISTIANS ARE
There are about 1.3 million Christians in Pakistan, a predominantly Sunni Muslim country of 204 million people. The Christians are the second-largest minority, after Hindus, and are almost evenly divided between Catholic and Protestant denominations.
The Christian population grew at the time of Pakistan’s creation in 1947, when the Indian subcontinent was divided into two nations. At the time, many lower caste Hindus, living in what would become Pakistan, converted to Christianity. They were among the region’s poorest and held jobs many others didn’t want.
Although some Christians have risen to senior positions, including A.R. Cornelius who served as Pakistan’s chief justice, many live in impoverished communities commonly referred to as “sweeper colonies” because residents are employed as domestic and sanitation workers.
HOW PAKISTAN’S GOVERNMENTS HAVE TREATED CHRISTIANS
The rise of Islamic radicalism in Pakistan has left the country’s minority religions vulnerable. The blasphemy law, which carries the death penalty for anyone convicted of insulting Islam, has been used at times as a tool against minorities. Christian churches and homes have been attacked by crowds invoking the law.
Prime Minister Imran Khan, elected in July, in part on an Islamic agenda, has vacillated between criticizing religious parties for using religion to enhance their influence, and bowing to their demands, including firing minorities from government-appointed positions.
In Bibi’s case, Khan seemingly caved to the Islamists’ demand to have her acquittal reviewed in an appeal — though some suspected he was trying to buy time to disperse the protesters.
Analysts say mixed signals from the government only embolden extremists. Minority religious leaders also say the poverty of the Christian minority sharply reduces their political clout.
HOW CHRISTIANS ARE FARING IN OTHER MUSLIM-MAJORITY COUNTRIES
Egypt’s Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the country’s 100 million Muslim-majority population, have long complained of discrimination and under-representation in government. Sectarian violence occasionally erupts in rural communities where Christian churches have been torched. Overwhelmingly, attacks on Egyptian Copts have been carried out by Islamist extremists, mainly the Islamic State group, which has killed scores of Christians in recent years.
Lebanon’s Christian community is the second-largest in the Middle East, after Egypt’s, but has gone from being a majority to ranging between 30 and 35 percent of the population. Despite their dwindling numbers, Lebanese Christians still retain relative political power with multiple political parties and a president, who must be a Christian Maronite, according to an unwritten national pact.
Across the Holy Land, Christians now make up an estimated 1 to 2 percent of the population, a marked decline over the decades. Reasons include a relatively low birth rate and increased emigration by Palestinian Christians, driven by the fallout from the long-running conflict with Israel. In the Gaza Strip, the number of Christians has dropped from 3,000 to 1,000 over the past decade of rule by the Islamic militant group Hamas — a period that has been marked by armed conflict with Israel, border closures and soaring unemployment.
Iraq has been seeing a dramatic exodus of its Christians since dictator Saddam Hussein was ousted in 2003. Muslim extremists, mostly from the al-Qaida terror network and later the Islamic State group, have bombed churches and shrines in Baghdad and the city of Mosul, and assassinated high-level bishops and priests. There were thought to be over 1 million Christians living in Iraq before the U.S.-led invasion of 2003; today only a fraction remains.
Associated Press writers Menna Zaki in Cairo, Philip Issa in Baghdad, Fares Akram in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, and Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.