ISLAMABAD: Christmas decoration seller Amjab Burgkat tidies his shop in 100 Quarters Colony, one of Islamabad's impoverished Christian ghettos. Security this Christmas in Pakistan, like many before it, will be tight with the government set to deploy armed forces to the Christian colonies. Residents say they feel more uneasy than ever during the religious holiday while the fate of Asia Bibi - a Christian who was on death row for eight years after being convicted under the country's controversial anti-blasphemy laws - continues to loom large. _ AFP

Pakistani Christian Asia Bibi will celebrate Christmas under guard, despite
being cleared of the blasphemy charges that kept her in jail since 2010. Bibi -
a former laborer who was on death row for eight years - remains a prime target
in conservative Muslim-majority Pakistan, with extremists calling for her blood
and the government refusing to reveal her location out of fear for her safety.

"It's too
dangerous... People want to kill her," said Yousaf Hadayat, a resident
from one of Islamabad's impoverished Christian ghettos, littered this week by a
smattering of Santa hats and Christmas trees. Security this Christmas, like
many before it, will be tight with the government set to deploy armed forces to
the Christian colonies. Residents say they feel more uneasy than ever during
the religious holiday while Bibi's fate continues to loom large. "We're
afraid," said Pastor Munawar Inayat at Holy of Holies Church in Islamabad.
"We can't speak against anyone."

The Supreme Court
overturned Bibi's death sentence for blasphemy in October, and she has legally
been a free woman ever since. But the ruling ignited days of violent
demonstrations that paralysed large swathes of the country, with enraged
Islamists calling for her beheading, mutiny within the powerful military and
the assassination of the country's top judges. The government has since
launched a crackdown on the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) party - the
Islamist group driving the violent protests - charging its leaders with
sedition and terrorism.

But authorities
also struck a deal with the protesters to end the violence, forming an
agreement which included allowing a final review of the Supreme Court's
judgment. Bibi, who is seeking asylum abroad, is believed to be in protective
custody inside Pakistan as the review continues. But there is no clear timeline
for when it will be completed. A government spokesman refused to comment on its
status, saying only that the matter is with the court. Analyst Fasi Zaka warned
that the longer Bibi remains in limbo, the greater the danger. "For some
elements if they don't have access to Asia Bibi they'll find stand-ins for
their vengeance," he told AFP.

'Lightning rod'

continues to be a massively inflammatory issue in Muslim-majority Pakistan,
where even unproven accusations of insulting Islam can spark lynchings. Many
cases see Muslims accusing Muslims. But rights activists have warned that
minorities - particularly Christians - are often caught in the crossfire, with
blasphemy charges used to settle personal scores. "This is a lighting rod
issue that affects a whole community," said Zaka.

The allegations
against Bibi date back to 2009, when a fight erupted between her and fellow
Muslim laborers, who later accused Bibi of blasphemy. She was convicted under
Pakistan's controversial anti-blasphemy laws and in 2010 sentenced to death.
Since her acquittal speculation has been rife that an asylum deal with a
European or North American country may be in the works.

Many residents of
the 100 Quarters Colony in Islamabad cautioned against Bibi's release, saying
her safety would only be guaranteed once she was granted asylum in a foreign
country. "No, no. She cannot stay," said resident Hadayat. Polio
campaign worker Shahnaz Arif argued against Bibi's ongoing custody. "We
should get the same freedom that others enjoy," she said. Even so she
admitted she was afraid, citing Pakistan's long history of political
assassinations, including some over blasphemy. "There is not enough
security for our leaders - we are just poor citizens," she explained.


Christians - who
make up around two percent of the population - occupy one of the lowest rungs
in class-obsessed Pakistani society, largely living in slums and working menial
jobs as street sweepers, cleaners and cooks. The tension comes as Washington
added Pakistan this month to a blacklist of countries that it says wantonly
violate religious freedom, citing the country's high number of blasphemy
convictions and failure to hold perpetrators targeting religious minorities to

Islamabad later
dismissed the US move as politically motivated. Back in the 100 Quarters
Colony, residents said their thoughts were with a mother who has already spent
many Christmases in solitary confinement. "Christmas is celebrated with
near and dear ones, and not in custody," said Christmas decoration seller
Amjab Burgkat. "There are security fears, but she should celebrate Christmas
with her family."_ AFP