Sentenced to death for being a Christian

Last week, Asia Bibi released her book “Blasphemy: A memoir”. For those of you who have not read Asia’s account of her treatment as a Pakistani Christian in the press, it makes for a damning indictment of a country that already has problems curbing its Islamist image.

In July 2009, mother-of-five Asia, 46, went to the fields to pick strawberries in the Pakistani summer heat for 250 rupees (under $2.50 USD). When she went to get a cup of water from the nearby well, one of the locals screamed at the others not to drink the “haram” (forbidden in Islam) water after it had been drunk from by a Christian. It didn’t take long for the rest of the women picking berries to go on the attack. When her religion was insulted and she was threatened if she did not convert to Islam, Asia was unrepentant. She told them in no uncertain terms “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”. Jesus is not considered the son of god in Islamic mythology and is not believed to have died on the cross. Asia’s statement of her position alone was taken as an insult to Islam and sent her tormenters into a torrent of hatred and abuse.

Five days later, Asia was attacked by the same mob again. She was taken to the village holy man. Unfortunately for Asia, this man preached an ultraconservative brand of Islam and had a hold on the local population. Asia was beaten, sworn at, spat on and told she must renounce her Christian faith and convert to Islam. After an ordeal that lasted hours, the police came and made arrests. Not of Asia’s would be lynchers of course, but of Asia herself: on the charge of blasphemy. Asia was being charged on the grounds that her words, including a proclamation of her Christianity, were blasphemy. If Asia were to be found guilty, she would face the death penalty. For four years now, she has languished in jail facing the gallows under 295c of Pakistan’s penal code. Even if released without charge, she is almost certain to end up the victim of vigilante violence like those who have fallen foul of the law before her.

And many have done so. Whilst Asia was arrested and jailed four years ago, the blasphemy law continues to claim victims. In July, Sajjad Masih, another Christian targeted by the law was sentenced to life imprisonment for a supposedly blasphemous mobile phone text message despite the conviction being based on flimsy if not non-existent evidence.

To add to this, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recently released its report detailing Pakistan’s poor history on religious freedoms. In the last year and a half alone, the report documents 203 acts of violence in the name of religion. This led to over 1,800 casualties and 700 deaths in no small part due to the witch hunts of minorities enabled by the blasphemy law.

What happened next in Asia’s case is even more frightening. The governor of Punjab, Pakistan’s largest, most populous and richest province, openly showed his support for Asia calling for the scrapping of what he called a “black law”. Salmaan Taseer was eventually shot by his own bodyguard Malik Mumtaz Qadri whilst his other bodyguards looked on.

It didn’t end there. Minister of minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian himself, was also gunned down in his car having just visited his mother. The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack saying Bhatti was a “known blasphemer” as he had many times proclaimed his Christian faith and stated his belief in Jesus not as a prophet, as in Islam, but as the son of god. Unfortunately, the blasphemy law is so vague and broad that it can be applied to even proclamations of faith antithetical to Islam and perversely, is based on the offence taken by others. In Asia’s case, she was arrested for offending the Muslims around her for voicing a difference of opinion on a matter of theology.

The final horror was the way in which Mumtaz Qadri, Salmaan Taseer’s assassin, was greeted by Pakistanis. After Taseer’s murder, there was a noticeable chilling effect. Asif Ali Zardari, the president at the time, suddenly went quiet. His hints of pardoning Asia stopped. Talk of rescinding 295c were nowhere to be heard. In death, Salmaan Taseer had been abandoned by his own political party. There is no talk of the new Pakistani administration rescinding the law.

On Christmas Day 2010, 200 people, exclusively Christians, marched in support of Asia calling for her release and the scrapping of the blasphemy law. Weeks later, 40,000 Pakistanis marched in support of the law which could see Asia killed. They threatened nationwide strikes and vigilante justice if the law was changed. The government cowered in fear at this show of Islamist force arranged by the political religious parties. Banners included “Mumtaz Qadri is our hero” and “We salute the courage of Qadri”. A sobering fact: as Mumtaz Qadri left court, Pakistani lawyers showered him with rose petals. Meanwhile, Asia Bibi sits in jail waiting for her food to be poisoned, for her to be murdered by would be vigilantes or, horrifyingly, by the state itself. 

At the time of partition, Pakistan’s non-Muslim population (which included modern day Bangladesh) stood at 23%. Today, it is down to as low as 3%. That figure is quite telling. In not challenging Islamism, Pakistanis have all but forced their non-Muslim countrymen to leave the country. Pakistani Christians today still look for a place where they can hope to not be burnt alive in their homes, have their churches attacked by grenades or their children arrested for perceived insults to Islam. This all stands in stark contrast to the way things had begun for this country back in 1948.

The founder of the nation, Muhammad Ali Jinnah said “you are free; you are free to go to your temples. You are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion, caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the state”. A secularist appeal for freedom of religion from the father of a nation. A far cry from a Pakistan now where Mumtaz Qadri is garlanded with roses as he leaves court a murderer. It was only this summer that one of the members of the most popular opposition party, Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, shocked Pakistan’s national assembly by demanding the pardon and release of Qadri. Support for the assassin remains.

Asia’s story and the aftermath makes for frightening reading and reminds us of one of the consequences of Pakistan’s unchecked drift towards an inward looking tribalism that doesn’t include non-Muslims. Pakistan has over the decades shaped its identity through everything non-Muslim, non-Western and ultimately non-Pakistani. Of course the tragedy here is that Asia Bibi is just that: Pakistani. Her detractors seem to forget that the white of the Pakistani flag represents the country’s minorities.

Asia’s future does not look hopeful. Pakistan’s death penalty was suspended under a 5 year moratorium by the last premier, Asif Ali Zardari. The EU expressed its concern over the government’s having allowed the moratorium to expire. However, faced with a surge in violence from Islamist militants including the Pakistani Taliban, new Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has reinstated the death penalty to try and curb the growing threat. Ironically, in a bid to deal with militants, reinstating the death penalty may allow Asia to be hanged by a blasphemy law that only continues to exist to appease Islamists to be found on Pakistan’s television screens politics. In a country of such contrast and contradictions, this doesn’t seem all that out of place. A country where murderers are garlanded with roses and being a Christian is enough to warrant the death penalty.

Asia has said “I am given raw material to cook for myself, since the administration fears I might be poisoned, as other Christians accused of blasphemy were poisoned or killed in the jail”. If Pakistan cannot be pressured into either pardoning Asia or scrapping the blasphemy law, she may not even make it to the gallows. Unfortunately, this is a much more likely possibility than her actually completing her appeal. Which only highlights the urgency of her plight and that of Pakistan’s persecuted minorities.

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