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.
In this self-filmed video, Asia Bibi tells people of faith to stay true to their beliefs: “I was granted my freedom through Jesus.” Asia was acquitted of blasphemy after spending 8 years on death row in #Pakistan. It is the first time we are hearing her voice since her release.
Posted by EWTN News Nightly on Tuesday, September 10, 2019
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).