The Church of Scotland has welcomed a landmark court ruling in Pakistan which overturned the death sentence of a Christian woman convicted of blasphemy.
The decision by the country’s top court to acquit Asia Bibi has sparked violent protests by hardline groups who support strict blasphemy legislation.
She was convicted in 2010 after being accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad in an argument with her neighbours.
She always maintained her innocence, but has spent most of the past eight years in solitary confinement.
But in a ruling which has polarised opinion, Pakistan’s chief justice, Mian Saqib Nisar, has ordered her release. It is expected she will leave the country soon afterwards.
The Kirk has been a a longstanding supporter of Ms Bibi’s cause, and recently wrote to the foreign secretary about the case. It said the ruling should pave the way for reform of the nation’s controversial blasphemy laws.
The Right Reverend Susan Brown, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, said: “The Church of Scotland gives thanks that the Supreme Court in Islamabad upheld Asia Bibi’s appeal against her 2010 conviction under Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws.
“We urge the authorities in Pakistan to do all in their power to ensure the safety and security of Asia Bibi and her family, her lawyers and the judges.
“We note with sadness that protests have already erupted across Pakistan against the verdict and urge people to pray for peace in a country that has such close and deep connections with Scotland.”
The charges against Ms Bibi date back 2009 when she went to get water for her and her fellow farm workers. Two Muslim women refused to drink from a container used by a Christian, and a few days later, a mob accused her of blasphemy. She was convicted and sentenced to death.
The mere rumour of blasphemy can ignite mob violence and lynchings in Pakistan, and combating alleged blasphemy has become a central rallying cry for hardline Islamists.
Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province, was shot and killed by one of his guards in 2011 for defending Ms Bibi and criticising the misuse of the blasphemy law.
Authorities have stepped up security at churches, with protests reported nationwide. In the eastern city of Multan, police arrested several demonstrators after clashes.
The Church of Scotland is currently campaigning to prevent the deportation of teenage brothers, Somer and Areeb Umeed Bakhsh, from Glasgow to Pakistan. The boys fled Pakistan with their Christian parents, Parveen and Maqsood, in 2012 after Islamic extremists threatened to kill their father.