PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - A hardline, pro-Taliban Pakistani Muslim cleric Friday offered a reward for anyone who kills a Christian woman sentenced to death by a court on charges of insulting Islam.
The sentence against Asia Bibi has renewed debate about Pakistan's blasphemy law which critics say is used to persecute religious minorities, fan religious extremism and settle personal scores. Non-Muslim minorities account roughly 4 percent of Pakistan's about 170 million population.
Maulana Yousef Qureshi, the imam of a major mosque in the northwestern city of Peshawar, offered a $5,800 (3,700 pounds) reward and warned the government against any move to abolish or change the blasphemy law.
"We will strongly resist any attempt to repeal laws which provide protection to the sanctity of Holy Prophet Mohammad," Qureshi told a rally of hardline Islamists.
"Anyone who kills Asia will be given 500,000 rupees in reward from Masjid Mohabat Khan," he said referring to his mosque.
While Qureshi is not believed to have a wide following, comments by clerics can provoke a violent response and complicate government efforts to combat religious extremism and militancy.
Qureshi, cleric who has been leading congregation at the 17th century Mohabat Khan mosque for decades, later told Reuters he was determined to see her killed.
"We expect her to be hanged and if she is not hanged then we will ask mujahideen and Taliban to kill her."
Bibi, a 45-year-old mother of four, is the first woman to be sentenced to death under the blasphemy law.
Blasphemy convictions are common in mainly Muslim Pakistan. Although the death sentence has never been carried out as most convictions are thrown out on appeal, angry mobs and fanatics have killed many people accused of blasphemy in the past.
In 2006, Qureshi and his followers announced rewards amounting to over $1 million for anyone who killed Danish cartoonists who drew caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad that had enraged Muslims worldwide.
After her conviction, Bibi appealed to President Asif Ali Zardari to pardon her, saying she had been wrongly accused by neighbours due to a personal dispute.
Last week, a government minister said an initial inquiry into the case showed she had not committed blasphemy. The Lahore High Court last month prevented Zardari from granting a pardon and ruled that the High Court should be allowed to decide her appeal.
"No president, no parliament and no government has any right to interfere in the commandants of Islam. Islamic punishment will be implemented at all costs," said Qureshi.
Additional reporting and writing by Zeeshan Haider; Editing by Michael Georgy and Miral Fahmy