For the first time ever, Pakistan's Supreme Court will decide whether a Christian on death row should be executed according to the country's blasphemy laws, which ban derogatory comments about Muhammad. International pressure could save the unduly condemned man's life and prevent other such spurious cases, rights advocates say.

"This is very much a test case that will set a precedent for all future blasphemy cases," says Mervyn Thomas, chief executive for London-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide.

Ayub Masih, 35, has been suffering inhumane conditions, including torture, for nearly five years. In a case already influenced by fundamentalist Muslim mobs, rights advocates fear heightened Islamic militance wrought by the U.S. "war on terrorism" could reduce Masih's chances of fair judicial review.

Masih's ordeal began in 1996 when, after a local meeting over a land dispute that ended in a mob attacking him, a young Muslim neighbor accused him of saying, "If you want to know the truth about Islam, read Salman Rushdie."

Reliable local sources say the accusation against Masih was concocted to force 15 Christian families to drop a local land dispute, according to CSW. Islamic fundamentalists applied intense pressure on the courts to badger them into condemning Masih, Thomas says.

"The extremists threatened to kill Ayub and his lawyers if he were acquitted," Thomas says, noting that the complainant shot at Ayub inside the Sahiwal Sessions Court on November 6, 1997.

At least six other Christians are jailed under Pakistan's blasphemy law, though authorities assert that of 102 blasphemy cases, 69 charge Muslims. Among them is Younus Sheikh, a Muslim homeopathic doctor and college lecturer, on trial for answers he gave to his students suggesting, ...

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