Pakistan's Supreme Court has overturned the conviction of a Christian woman facing execution for blasphemy in a landmark case that has attracted global attention and incited deadly violence at home.
Chief Justice Saqib Nisar on October 31 overturned the conviction by the Lahore High Court that had sentenced Asia Bibi, a mother of four, to death in 2010 for allegedly insulting Islam's Prophet Muhammad -- a charge Bibi has denied.
The court ordered that Bibi be freed. She is being held at an undisclosed location for security reasons.
Her conviction and death sentence had outraged Christians worldwide. Pope Benedict XVI called for her release in 2010, while in 2015 her daughter met his successor and the current head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis.
But the landmark ruling is expected to anger Islamists in Pakistan who have threatened to launch nationwide protests if the court freed her.
A hard-line Islamist party, Tehrik-e Labaik, has demanded her execution.
"If there is any attempt to hand her over to a foreign country, there will be terrible consequences," the party said in a statement before the ruling.
In 2011, two government officials -- a Pakistani governor and a minister of minorities -- were assassinated for having spoken out in support of Bibi.
Insulting Islam is punishable by death in Pakistan, and the mere rumor of blasphemy can lead to lynchings by mobs.
Bibi was sentenced to death by a district court in the central province of Punjab in 2010 for allegedly making derogatory remarks about Islam after neighbors objected to her drinking water from their glass because she was not Muslim.
Approximately 40 people are believed to be on death row or serving a life sentence in Pakistan for blasphemy, according to a 2018 report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.
At least 1,472 people were charged under Pakistan's blasphemy laws between 1987 and 2016, according to the Lahore-based Center for Social Justice.
It said Muslims constituted a majority of those prosecuted, followed by members of the Ahmadi, Christian, and Hindu minorities.
Rights groups say the laws are increasingly exploited by religious extremists as well as by ordinary Pakistanis to settle personal scores.
While many offenders have been sentenced to death, there have been relatively few executions.
People like Bibi who are charged with blasphemy but later freed have had to flee the country for their own safety.