Ashiq Maseeh, Aasia Bibi, aasia family, Shahbaz Bhatti, Christian mother, Christian woman
Ashiq Maseeh (C) husband of Aasia Bibi, a Christian mother sentenced to death, talks with Minister of Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti in Islamabad on November 24. — Photo by AFP.

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 Aasia Bibi, a mother of five sentenced to hang for defaming Prophet Mohammad under blasphemy laws.

While a growing number of moderate politicians have backed calls for clemency for Aasia, 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 Aasia.

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 hardliners.

Rights activists say Pakistan's controversial blasphemy law, under which the offence is punishable by death, encourages extremism in the country.

Minority affairs minister Shahbaz Bhatti presented a clemency plea to Zardari late Thursday on the grounds that the case against Aasia was based only on personal enmity.

Pope Benedict XVI has also called for Aasia's release and said Christians in Pakistan were “often victims of violence and discrimination”.

Aasia 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. Aasia 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 per cent of Pakistan's population of 167 million are estimated to be non-Muslim.