The sentence for Shafqat Emmanuel and Shugufta Emmanuel in Pakistan's Punjab province came eight days after a court in Lahore sentenced Sawan Masih to death for allegedly insulting Islam's prophet Muhammad.
The case against Masih, a street sweeper, stemmed from an alleged drunken conversation with a Muslim friend that sparked an outbreak of violence in Lahore's Joseph Colony. The March 2013 flare-up left 180 Christian-owned homes and shops destroyed; an anti-terrorism court subsequently freed 133 Muslim suspects in spite of video evidence against them.
Also on death row: Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five. Imprisoned since 2009, Bibi was convicted after a dispute with local Muslim women who accused her of insulting Muhammad.
Pakistan's small Christian community makes up less than 3 percent of the country's 180 million people, with less than 1 percent considered evangelical/followers of Christ.
Wheelchair-bound Shafqat Emmanuel, 43, and his wife Shagufta, a cleaner at a local missionary school and mother to four young children, were convicted of blasphemy in the Punjab's Toba Tek Singh district of 2 million-plus people.
The Emmanuels were accused of sending blasphemous text messages on June 18, 2013. Charges against the couple included insulting Muhammad, punishable by death, and insulting the Quran, punishable by life imprisonment.
The couple's lawyer told Morning Star News, which reports on Christian persecution worldwide, that the judge succumbed to pressure from Islamist lawyers despite lacking concrete evidence against the couple.
"These men kept pressuring the judge during the entire trial, which was conducted in prison due to fears for the couple's security," attorney Nadeem Hassan said. "Even on Friday , the complainants' lawyers kept proclaiming Koranic references calling for death to blasphemers."
Hassan said he kept demanding during the trial that the prosecution produce the couple's call data record but they failed to do.
"During preliminary investigations, Shagufta had told the police that her cell phone had been lost for a month and that she did not know who might have sent the alleged messages," Hassan said. "Nevertheless, the detained the couple, along with their four minor children, and pressured them to name someone who could have sent the messages."
Hassan said that in order to appease mobs led by Islamist clerics, police forced Shafqat Emmanuel, confined to a wheelchair due to a spinal injury, to confess that he had sent the blasphemous messages. But Hassan said Emmanuel retracted his statement when the trial judge was asked to record the confession again.
Emmanuel's backbone was fractured in an accident in 2004 that left his lower body paralyzed. Since his accident, Shagufta Emmanuel has been the only breadwinner for the family's four children, Ambrose, 13, Danish, 10, Sarah, 7, and Amir, 5.
Hassan said he would challenge the verdict in Pakistan's high court once he received a detailed copy of the verdict.
Farrukh Harrison of the Christian advocacy group World Vision in Progress criticized the judge for giving the death sentence to both the husband and wife even though authorities forced a confession from the husband.
"Why was Shagufta given a death sentence when the police claim that her husband had committed the act?" Harrison told Morning Star News. "Isn't this a travesty of justice that a poor couple has been convicted for a motiveless crime? ... They are uneducated, poor people whose entire life is limited to their hometown only."
Harrison added that Hassan told the court the couple couldn't possibly have written the alleged texts in the regional Urdu language because they couldn't read or write Urdu properly.
Others in the balance
"It's only a matter of time" until two other Christians accused of blasphemy -- Adnan Masih, also known as Adnan Prince, and Asif Pervaiz -- will also be given the death sentence, Harrison said.
Masih, in his mid-20s, is accused of marking several pages of a book with abusive words against Muhammad, according to World Watch Monitor, another U.S.-based persecution watchdog. Pervaiz, in his late 20s, was accused of blasphemy after refusing an offer to convert to Islam, according to the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance & Settlement in Lahore. Pervaiz had operated a small children's garment business in Lahore and is the father of four small children.
"It's a pity," Harrison said, "that all these people will have to suffer for years in prison until the high court judges their cases on merit."
At least three other cases have been registered previously against Christians based on blasphemous text messages, according to Morning Star News.
In January 2009, Hector Aleem and Basharat Khokhar were accused of sending text messages that hurt Muslims' religious sentiment. They were acquitted of the charge on May 31, 2011.
Ryan Stanton, then 16, was charged with sending blasphemous text messages in Karachi on Oct. 10, 2012. He fled the country after the family's home was ransacked by a Muslim mob.
In other blasphemy cases last year: Younis Masih was freed by an appeals court, which ruled in April that he had been convicted on hearsay; Masih was arrested for blaspheming Muhammad in 2005 and subsequently sentenced to death. Three months earlier, Rimsha Masih (no relation), a developmentally challenged teenage girl accused of blasphemy, was freed by Pakistan's Supreme Court, which agreed with a lower court that she had been framed by a local imam.
According to Human Rights Watch, at least 16 people were on death row in Pakistan in 2013 for blasphemy and another 20 were serving life sentences.
Islamists defend the blasphemy laws and militants have been known to murder anyone accused of blasphemy. Two high-ranking Pakistani officials -- Minister of Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti and Punjab governor Salman Taseer -- were gunned down simply for criticizing the laws.
Amnesty International, in a 2014 report, said the vague formulation of the blasphemy laws, along with inadequate investigation by authorities and intimidation by mobs and some religious groups, has promoted vigilantism across Pakistan, especially in Punjab province. Rights groups also have contended that Pakistan's blasphemy laws are often misused to persecute minorities and to settle personal scores.
Compiled from reports gathered by Baptist Press editor Art Toalston from Morning Star News, a California-based independent news service focusing on the persecution of Christians worldwide, and other sources. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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