It takes a nation to protect the nation
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The Pakistani city of Lahore was the center of Friday’s protests, which were organized by the anti-blasphemy party Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP). Demonstrations also took place in a number of other cities across the country, including Karachi and Rawalpindi.
The rallies came after Pakistan's Supreme Court heard the final appeal of Bibi, a Christian laborer accused of blasphemy against the Prophet Mohammed in 2009 by Muslim women she was working with in a field.
According to Bibi's autobiography ‘Blasphemy: A Memoir: Sentenced to Death Over a Cup of Water’ the incident began when she went to retrieve a cup of water from a well during a hot day of fruit picking.
When a Muslim woman nearby saw her doing so she shouted, “Don't drink that water, it's haram (forbidden)!” She then turned to the other women in the field, telling them that Bibi had dirtied the water in the well by drinking from their cup.
“Now the water is unclear and we can't drink it! Because of her!” the woman said. Several women called Bibi a “filthy Christian” and told her to convert to Islam.
“I’m not going to convert. I believe in my religion and in Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for the sins of mankind. What did your Prophet Mohammed ever do to save mankind? And why should it be me that converts instead of you?” Bibi said.
At that point, one woman spat on her while another shoved her. Days later, she was accused of blasphemy.
Friday’s protests came despite the court saying it had reached a judgment at a hearing on Monday, but that it would not be released immediately for “reasons to be recorded later.” It also said that it had ruled on a petition that would put Bibi on the no-fly list if released, but did not publish that judgment either.
Bibi's case has prompted international calls for her release, with Pope Benedict XVI joining in the calls in 2010. Pope Francis met with Bibi's daughter in 2015.
Although Pakistan's law takes the accusation of blasphemy very seriously and people have been sentenced to death, no one has ever actually been executed.
Protests erupted in Lahore, Pakistan, in February after a court upheld Asia Bibi’s acquittal on blasphemy charges.CreditRahat Dar/EPA, via Shutterstock
Protests erupted in Lahore, Pakistan, in February after a court upheld Asia Bibi’s acquittal on blasphemy charges.CreditCreditRahat Dar/EPA, via Shutterstock
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A Pakistani Christian woman who spent eight years on death row after being found guilty of blasphemy — a conviction that was later overturned — has arrived in Canada, her lawyer said on Wednesday.
The woman, Asia Bibi, was convicted and sentenced to death in 2010 after being accused, based on little evidence, of speaking against the Prophet Muhammad during a heated argument with Muslim women. She insisted she had not done so and that she was the victim of false accusations prompted by bigotry.
Ms. Bibi, a former farmworker in her early 50s, was cleared of the charges last year and released from prison under government protection. That led to calls for her execution and violent protests by hard-line Islamists that paralyzed large parts of the country.
Her family appealed for asylum in Canada, Britain and the United States, saying that Ms. Bibi was in grave danger. Her lawyer briefly left Pakistan, citing threats to his life.
The lawyer, Saiful Malook, confirmed through text messages that Ms. Bibi had left Pakistan for Canada on Tuesday.
In a brief telephone interview from Pakistan, Mr. Malook said Ms. Bibi was in Ottawa, where her two daughters have lived since December.
“Now they should let her live in peace,” he said, referring to people generally and Muslims who live in Canada in particular.
Asia Bibi in 2010, at a prison in the city of Sheikhupura, near Lahore.CreditAssociated Press
Omar Waraich, the deputy South Asia director at Amnesty International, welcomed the news that Ms. Bibi had left Pakistan.
“She should never have been imprisoned in the first place, let alone endure the constant threats to her life,” he said. “This case horrifyingly illustrates the dangers of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and the urgent need to repeal them.”
The Pakistani Foreign Ministry was not immediately available for comment, and the Canadian Embassy in Islamabad referred questions about Ms. Bibi to Global Affairs Canada, the nation’s foreign ministry. But Global Affairs Canada did not comment, either.
The original verdict convicting Ms. Bibi drew worldwide condemnation and calls for overturning Pakistan’s contentious blasphemy law, which was passed under the military dictator Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq in the 1980s as a way to promote Islam and unite the country.
The law prescribes a death sentence for anyone convicted of insulting Islam or the prophet Muhammad. Rights groups say the law has been used by extremists as a bludgeon against religious minorities.
One outspoken critic of the blasphemy law was Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab Province at the time of Ms. Bibi’s conviction. In 2011, he was assassinated by his bodyguard, who later suggested to the police that he had killed Mr. Taseer because of his opposition to the law.
Hard-line Islamist parties have opposed any changes in the law, and Ms. Bibi’s acquittal in October led to days of violent protests by members and supporters of Tehreek Labbaik Pakistan, a religious political party led by a firebrand cleric, Khadim Hussain Rizvi.
Mr. Rizvi was arrested in November in a government crackdown, along with hundreds of his party workers, in the wake of protests over Ms. Bibi’s fate. He and other party leaders were later charged with sedition and terrorism.
Salman Masood reported from Islamabad, and Mike Ives from Hong Kong.
COMMENTARY | SEP. 16, 2019
Asia Bibi, Modern Confessor of the Faith
COMMENTARY: A drama of faithfulness, courage and perseverance, in which good ultimately triumphs. It is also a window into the importance of the struggle to defend religious freedom.
Asia Bibi, at last, has spoken.
Earlier this month, the Catholic mother from Pakistan who, for the past decade, became this century’s international face of persecuted Christians and stirred governments throughout the West into action on her behalf, released several short video tapes from a secret refuge in Canada. In them, she expresses her love for Jesus Christ, forgiveness for her persecutors and concern for other prisoners languishing unjustly in her native land.
Bibi also reflects on her nearly 10-year ordeal of imprisonment on death row in a Pakistani prison on charges that she committed blasphemy against Islam. Her experience is unimaginable to most of us in the West, where we still have rights to religious freedom unknown in most of the world. Living under the constant threat of execution, the loneliness of solitary confinement, ordered for her own safety, was its own form of torture. She explained:
“When my daughters visited me in jail, I never cried in front of them, but when they went after meeting me in jail, I used to cry alone filled with pain and grief. I used to think about them all the time, how they are living.”
She is a modern version of what the early Church once called a “confessor of the faith” — Christians who, during the time of persecution in ancient Rome, were imprisoned or tortured for professing their faith but not martyred.
A quick recap of her case may be helpful to appreciate why the fate of one impoverished berry picker in Pakistan moved the world:
Bibi’s ordeal, which, she told British newspaper The Telegraph, caused deep suffering to her and her children, ignited in the flash of a moment in 2009, when she took a sip of water from a communal cup while harvesting berries in a hot field near her village. The other field hands, also poor women but who were Muslims, accused Bibi of being a dirty “infidel,” who defiled the cup and blasphemed their prophet. A heated exchange ensued. Bibi was dragged into town, beaten by a mob and soon arrested.
At trial, the Muslim women gave conflicting testimony and were found on a final appeal to have been manipulated by a local imam. The alleged blasphemy itself was never fully explained in court, for to do so would be to repeat the offense. Nevertheless, in 2010, the mother was convicted and sentenced to death by hanging under section 295-C of Pakistan’s 1986 blasphemy code.
As the case wended its way through the court system, it gained critical international attention, which helped keep her alive. This was initially undertaken by key Pakistani actors, whose courage cannot be overstated. Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic who was a lifelong advocate for the rights of religious minorities in his home country, was then the minister for minorities in the government’s cabinet. He quickly took up her case, making it a cause célèbre internationally. In retaliation, he was shot to death on his way to the office one morning in 2011 by assailants who have yet to be arrested.
Salman Taseer, the Muslim governor of Pakistan’s largest province, Punjab, was also assassinated by his security detail around the same time after he spoke up for Bibi. Mohammad Amanullah, an influential human-rights advocate, is an unsung hero who helped Bibi and other blasphemy-law victims and has had to flee abroad.
These and other Pakistanis knowingly put their lives on the line, as Farahnaz Ispahani and I have written, because of the deeply corrosive effect on Pakistan of its blasphemy laws. There are high stakes: The blasphemy codes — as much as any terror group — empower extremists, undermine the rule of law and destabilize the society. They have been used to victimize hundreds of other Christians, Ahmadiya Muslims, Shia and even members of the majority Sunni population. According to human-rights groups, those cases brought to court are often motivated by personal score settling. More often, the charges, sometimes a mere rumor of a Quran burning, result in rioting, including pogroms that torched the Christian St. Joseph’s colony neighborhood in Lahore and in a lynch mob that burned alive a young married couple.
The flimsiness of the trial evidence eventually led the country’s supreme court — which prides itself on upholding British rule-of-law traditions — to acquit Bibi in October 2018. The judges, as well as her lawyer — all Muslims — were threatened by fanatics. Angry protesters organized by Islamist militant groups demanded Bibi’s execution and paralyzed the country’s major highways for days, forcing the government to partially shut down cellphone service, social media and even schools. Bibi went into hiding in a safe house, still unable to reunite with her children.
After intensifying international diplomacy and the soft power pressure of American aid and European trade sanctions always a possibility, Prime Minister Imran Khan acted to rein in militant ring leaders, who had long held the previous government hostage. Six months after the acquittal, Pakistan’s political climate cooled. Last May, Bibi was finally given safe passage to leave Pakistan and was offered asylum by Canada (and several other European countries), where her family had fled after her acquittal. Bibi left incognito on a private plane, arranged by Western religious-freedom advocates and donated by an anonymous wealthy European Christian. Islamabad’s willingness to finally uphold justice, albeit belatedly, was vigorously supported by pivotal influential figures, notably, the European Union and American ambassadors on religious freedom, Jan Figel and Sam Brownback, respectively, and British Lord David Alton. Many other governmental actors, such as U.S. members of Congress, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), journalists, broadcasters, church groups and others played key roles.
It was a sustained international effort, spanning over a decade, that kept the Asia Bibi case in focus, saving her life and ultimately allowing her to be free to begin a new life with her family in another part of the world. It has helped make Pakistan a more moderate place by the fact that the government finally took on prominent extremists. And, while not succeeding in ending the injustices of the blasphemy laws or even securing the release of the some remaining 77 prisoners accused of blasphemy, this effort has drawn attention and built pressure for the need to do so.
Over the years, Bibi had been offered opportunities for pardon and immediate release if she recanted her faith and converted to Islam. She always refused. The tapes make evident that she remains spiritually strong and her faith, intact. At the outset of the tapes, which are translated by Aid to the Church in Need from her native tongue of Urdu, she identifies herself as one who “believes in Jesus” and states, “I was granted my freedom through Jesus, and I never let my faith weaken.”
She also professes her love for her children, those who helped her and her country, for which she asks blessings. She states, “I did not do anything wrong to deserve what I suffered for 10 years.” Her most important message is selfless — that the world not forget other prisoners left behind: “Please think positively about the prisoners of blasphemy, on death row. Go visit them and listen to them … do something. … Do not punish anyone without listening [to their defense].”
Asia Bibi should inspire us all. Hers is a drama of faithfulness, courage and perseverance, in which good ultimately triumphs. It is also a window into the importance of the struggle to defend religious freedom.
Nina Shea is director of Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom and co-author,
with Dr. Paul Marshall, of Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes Are
Choking Freedom Worldwide (Oxford University Press, 2011).
She describes being chained and wearing an iron collar that prison guards could tighten with a huge nut.
In autobiography, Asia Bibi speaks of iron collar, ‘depths of darkness’
Catholic News Service
Feb 2, 2020
In this 2018 file photo, Pope Francis walks with family members of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death in Pakistan, during a private audience at the Vatican."My heart broke when I had to leave without saying goodbye to my father or other members of the family," Bibi said in a new autobiography. (Credit: CNS photo/Vatican Media.)
Asia Bibi, the Catholic woman acquitted of blasphemy after spending eight years on death row in Pakistan, described herself as “a prisoner of fanaticism” in her newly published autobiography.
The mother of five was sentenced to death on insubstantial evidence in 2010 after being accused of blasphemy in a dispute over a cup of water with a Muslim co-worker on a farm.
Salman Taseer, the Punjab states governor, and Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s minister of minority affairs, were murdered for publicly supporting her and criticizing Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.
Bibi, 47, was acquitted by the Supreme Court of Pakistan in 2018 and now lives in exile in Canada at an undisclosed location after moving there last May.
Ucanews.com reported Bibi’s autobiography, Enfin libre! (“Free at Last”), has been written in French by journalist Isabelle-Anne Tollet, who campaigned for Bibi’s freedom and is the only reporter to have met her during her stay in Canada. An English version is due out in September.
“You already know my story through the media. But you are far from understanding my daily life in prison or my new life. I became a prisoner of fanaticism. Tears were the only companions in the cell,” Bibi says in the book.
She describes being chained and wearing an iron collar that prison guards could tighten with a huge nut, ucanews.com reported.
“Deep within me, a dull fear takes me toward the depths of darkness. A lacerating fear that will never leave me,” she says. “I am startled by the cry of a woman. ‘To death!’ The other women join in. ‘Hanged!’ ‘Hanged!'”
In Muslim-majority Pakistan, an unsubstantiated allegation of insulting Islam can lead to death at the hands of mobs.
Bibi’s acquittal resulted in violent protests, led by cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, that paralyzed Pakistan.
Bibi argues in her book that the Christian minority still faces persecution in Pakistan.
“Even with my freedom, the climate does not seem to have changed, and Christians can expect all kinds of reprisals,” she says.
While she is grateful to Canada for giving her security and a fresh start, she regrets that she will probably never set foot in her homeland again.
“In this unknown country, I am ready for a new departure, perhaps for a new life. But at what price?” Bibi asks.
“My heart broke when I had to leave without saying goodbye to my father or other members of the family. Pakistan is my country. I love my country, but I am in exile forever.”
She refers to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws as a “Damocles sword” hanging over the head of religious minorities.
From 1987 to 2017, at least 1,500 people were charged with blasphemy in Pakistan, while at least 75 people accused of blasphemy were murdered, according to the Center for Social Justice.