ISLAMABAD: Pakistan's president will not immediately pardon a Christian woman sentenced to die for insulting Islam but may do so later if an appeals court delays her case too long, an official said Thursday.
Pope Benedict XVI has appealed for the release of Aasia Bibi, a 45-year-old mother of five who has said she was wrongly accused by a group of Muslim women with a grudge against her.
The case has prompted outrage from international rights groups and inflamed religious passions at home. In recent days, demonstrations have been staged both by Pakistan's Christian minority calling for her release and also by Muslims warning against any pardon for her and defending the country's blasphemy law, which critics say is misused to settle personal scores and by extremists to persecute minorities.
Bibi, 45, is the first woman condemned to die under the blasphemy law. She has been jailed for 18 months and was sentenced Nov. 8 to hang.
Her lawyer has filed an appeal with the Lahore High Court, and President Asif Ali Zardari has decided to let the appeal process play out instead of immediately pardoning her, said Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, who met with Zardari on Thursday.
Pardoning Bibi would carry political risk for Zardari, whose coalition government relies on an Islamic political party in Parliament.
However, Zardari agreed to pardon Bibi later if the appeal case is unduly delayed, Bhatti said. Zardari's spokesman could not be reached Thursday.
Bhatti _ who has said he believes Bibi is innocent _ said Zardari did not specify any deadline but said he believes the president ''will not wait months or weeks.''