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» » Pakistani Christians, an embattled minority

 Pakistani Christians, an embattled minority

ISLAMABAD – The uproar surrounding Aasia Bibi — a Pakistani Christian woman who was acquitted of blasphemy charges and released from death row but remains at a secret location for her protection — has drawn attention to the plight of the country's Christians.

The minority, among Pakistan's poorest, has faced an increasingly intolerant atmosphere in this Muslim-majority nation where radical religious and sectarian groups have become more prominent in recent years.


Here is a look at some of the issues involved.

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WHY HER RELEASE IGNITED AN UPROAR

Bibi's Oct. 31 acquittal by Pakistan's supreme court triggered large-scale protests, with religious extremists demanding the 54-year-old mother of five be publicly executed — and that the three judges who set her free also be put to death.

Her ordeal started in 2009 after two fellow women farmworkers refused to drink from the same container as a Christian, and later said Bibi had insulted the Prophet Muhammad. The claim led to her arrest and 2010 death sentence on blasphemy charges. In Pakistan, a mere accusation of blasphemy has caused riots, even lynching.

Rights groups have said Pakistan's blasphemy law is often used as an excuse to settle scores, or as a weapon against religious minorities, including Shiite Muslims who are at times targeted by Sunni Muslim militants as heretics.

Bibi has been in hiding in Islamabad since her release earlier this week. Her family says she will

leave Pakistan as soon as possible because of death threats against her.

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WHO THE PAKISTANI CHRISTIANS ARE

There are about 1.3 million Christians in Pakistan, a predominantly Sunni Muslim country of 204 million people. The Christians are the second-largest minority, after Hindus, and are almost evenly divided between Catholic and Protestant denominations.

The Christian population grew at the time of Pakistan's creation in 1947, when the Indian subcontinent was divided into two nations. At the time, many lower caste Hindus, living in what would become Pakistan, converted to Christianity. They were among the region's poorest and held jobs many others didn't want.

Although some Christians have risen to senior positions, including A.R. Cornelius who served as Pakistan's chief justice, many live in impoverished communities commonly referred to as "sweeper colonies" because residents are employed as domestic and sanitation workers.

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