By now Bibi has become an international symbol of Christian persecution, something that should have been used as a catalyst to reboot the indifference towards such global suffering five years ago. Five years later and she remains languishing in a prison cell. Her story in itself is not unique and instead echoes thousands of told and untold experiences: an accusation made by Muslim clerics, communities or individuals against a Christian minority that have ‘blasphemed against the Prophet’ or Islam and years of violence, culminating in detention follows. In most of these cases, families of those accused are at risk of death themselves and so years on the run or in hiding is quintessentially the norm. However, Asayia Bibi’s situation remains unique as she stands to be Pakistan’s first woman to be sentenced to death via its Penal Blasphemy Law Code.
I first came to read about Bibi when I was 15 years old and her name and face has been etched within me ever since. Most people by now have come across enough instances of Blasphemy to not pay attention to the fine print but the details of her plight need to be carefully adhered to. Asayia Bibi was initially accused of blasphemy in 2009, when she sparked outrage among the group of Muslim women she would harvest berries with. The women were offended that Bibi dared to drink with the same water cup as them, since Christians in Pakistan are regarded as inferior and unclean beings.
This accusation of Blasphemy soon led to an official declaration of a death sentence in November 2010 by Lahore High Court, a decision they have refused to reverse and instead have upheld on October 16 2014. The international community may be occasionally speaking out against the treatment of this woman but since they continue to pour billions of aid into Pakistan throughout the years she has been detained, one cannot help but question just how genuinely concerned they are.
Fundamentally speaking, a cup of water has resulted in the beating, mistreatment and discrimination of Bibi and her family who have been in hiding ever since Asayia was initially arrested. A cup of water has led to five young children being deprived of their mother for years on end. A cup of water has resulted in the years of physical infliction and mental deprivation for a woman at risk of being killed by prison mates and prison guards.
Should Asayia Bibi ever be released her persecution will not end there, but instead provide Puritanical Muslims every reason to further call for her death or personally avenge their ‘grievances’ as by now she has become a global figure for the Persecuted Church and an international Christian symbol.
What the West needs to be doing is promoting the ordeal of Asayia Bibi and instilling pressure onto the Pakistani government, instead of distracting the world by parading the likes of Malala Yousafzai around on our television screens. The West in particular must wake up to the fact that a mere cup of water evoked the wrath of the Blasphemy Law and realize just how false this Penal Code actually is. The Blasphemy Law is in use daily, scavenging out minority Christian communities and manipulating it under the false pretence of insulting Islam to settle personal disputes or to impinge upon Christian territory.
Asayia Bibi represents countless of Persecuted Christians worldwide and symbolizes everything that is wrong with not only the Blasphemy Law in Pakistan.
Providing the Pakistani state permit her survival, or contingent on prevailing health, 2019 will mark the 10th year of Asia Bibi’s arrest and subsequent imprisonment over what was, quite literally, a dispute between her and Muslim women at a local well. If you don’t know at this stage (particularly as I’ve attempted to highlight her ordeal numerously on this platform), Khala Bibi’s case remains as one of the most prolific – in Persecuted Christian terms at least. The fact that a local Christian woman, a local labourer in Punjab, Pakistan has been left to languish in a jail cell for a decade – over essentially what was local Muslim objection to an ‘infidel’s’ use of a village well, spells out not only the dire state of Pakistani Islamisation that shows no signs of reversing; but also the unashamed indifference towards Bibi. Not necessarily only amongst many Pakistani politicians and its judicial system but within countries officially professing Christianity as their state religion. And of course, the Global Christian Church.
Whilst it is encouraging that Bibi’s plight has not slipped from global attention, however sporadic, (the European Parliament awarded Bibi its 2017 Sakharov Prize, for Freedom of Thought), identity politics and the politics of ‘altruism’ does not directly influence the daily treatment of a mother and wife; deprived of her children and in constant deterioration health-wise. I have been following Bibi’s suffering from the moment her ordeal surfaced in 2009. I was 14/15 at the time. I simply can not pen how such draconian circumstances have allowed almost a decade to pass by, with an innocent villager still sat behind bars. It is incomprehensible to the civilised mind.
However, that has been Asia Bibi’s cross to bear and continues to remain so. I don’t write this post to reiterate all past mentions of her. (All past posts can be found by punching her name into the blog’s search engine). Rather, I recieved alarming news from a reliable source, that Bibi’s health is rapidly on the decline. Duties of care concerning detainees is not applicable in countries in Pakistan, particularly a vulnerable Christian woman who has been accused of blasphemy – the most contentious and salient political issue that has seen the murders of former Minorities Minister, Bhatti and former Punjab Minister, Taseer,murdered for daring to challenge the blatant anti-nonMuslim mentality and motives within Pakistan’s penal code. After 9 years of sitting on what has been death row in a country that continues to chip away at its founding promise to enshrine religious and ethnic minority rights, one can imagine the state of Bibi’s health.
Without major campaigning for her release, effective lobbying to our local/national leaders, who barely speak out against Christian persecution, much less instill financial impositions on the billions of aid pumped out to Muslim-oriented countries such as Pakistan; Bibi is fundamentally at the mercy of the Pakistani state. Her family continue to live in terror, tainted by blasphemy and in constant flight for their lives.
Today I have been informed that Asia continues to cough up blood whilst being denied access to medical treatment.
I have written numerous posts concerning the utilisation of the Blasphemy law across many Islamic countries. Section 295 of Pakistan’s Penal Code has enshrined blasphemy, whereby defiling or defaming the Quran and/or Muhammad is deeply illegal. In extreme cases it carries a death sentence. Aside from the legal ramifications which render many of the accused languishing in prison – some of which await the death penalty – the social consequences are less publicised and therefore widely unknown to the wider world.
For those accused of blasphemy yet never imprisoned, for those released from detention – the mark of blasphemy continues to taint and follow them within their local communities. All too often we hear of instances where those accused of blasphemy are set upon by local, incensed mobs, beaten and in extreme cases murdered. Regular readers of this blog are already very aware of a few case examples. Families of the accused are hardly guaranteed their safety. I immediately think of Asia Bibi’s family who were forced to flee their home in the Punjab province of Pakistan upon her arrest in 2009. In 2010 the BBC reported on the plight of the Bibi family, referring to Asia’s husband – Ashiq Masih – as ‘having the look of a hunted man, gaunt, anxious and exhausted’.
Hunted. Imagery of petrified prey scurrying away from predators on the prowl spring to mind. The Bibis are one example of a family tainted by blasphemy and constant flight is the consequence. I have often wondered which would be the lesser torment – to be caged inside a Pakistani cell at the disposal of prison guards and other detainees or to be ‘free’ at the mercy of local communities who take it upon themselves to avenge so-called blasphemy charges and accusations. Either way neither option constitutes freedom. This rising issue of blasphemy ensnares and entraps those accused.
Christians are targeted above any other religious minority group in Pakistan. Although 2% of the population are Christian, they account for 33% of those charged with blasphemy according to a detailed research report conducted by International Christian Concern. This clearly shows a disproportionate discrimination toward the Christian minority. Reading into the ICC’s special report on blasphemy cases in Pakistan, I discovered that 171 Christians have been accused of blasphemy since the law was enacted in 1986, 157 from the Punjab Province, 12 from Sindh and 2 from Kyber Paktunkhawa. As attacks on Christians have increased steadily over the decade, I can’t help but notice the totalitarian element to blasphemy. Given that the blasphemy law is increasingly being utilised to settle personal scores and vendettas it is obvious that in these instances, Christians are being discriminated against simply because of who they are as opposed to what they supposedly do.
One case study is the example of Adnan Masih, originally from Lahore and who was accused of insulting Islam’s prophet Muhammad in 2013. He continues to be imprisoned. On 7 October 2013 Adnan replaced his brother at the Diamond Glass store and had spotted a book written by the leader of fanatical group Jamat-ul-Dawa entitled ‘I asked the Bible why Qurans were burnt’. Having noting biased religious points of view against Christianity in the book he penned corrections. His colleague subsequently filed a report against Masih at a local police station and he was eventually arrested after the targeting of his family members forced him out of hiding.
Blasphemy is indeed contentious. The Federal Sharia Court issued an order in 2013 to ‘reform’ the blasphemy law, leaving many of the country’s Christians in increasing fear for their lives. December 2013 saw the FSC order Pakistan’s government to remove life imprisonment from the list of court punishments in dealing with blasphemy; thereby bolstering the death penalty for those charged under the penal code. It should be stated that the role of the FSC is to examine and ascertain whether the laws of the country are in accordance with Sharia. They do not have the Parliamentary prerogative of enforcing legislation.
Yet whilst the government has yet to implement the ruling of the FSC – if they ever intend to – it unmistakably places Christians in a sustained climate of heightened fear and uncertainty for the future of their faith in the country. There are no consequences for those levelling accusations of blasphemy and this impunity only furthers the manipulative use of this controversial law.
The legacy of blasphemy should never be undermined. International Christian Concern cites the example of ‘Asif’ who underwent a decade of separation from his family after he served 4 years of his blasphemy sentence in 2002. Upon his release, his fear of being recognised with his family and his desire to blur any connections with them forced him to live as a fugitive in order to ensure their safety. The families of those accused also carry the mark, a ‘legacy’ of blasphemy.
‘’Because people know I have been imprisoned for blasphemy, it is unsafe for me and my family to live together’’
(‘’Asif’’ – blasphemy victim)
To be tainted with blasphemy could well be the fate of any Christian in Pakistan. A fate initially leashed upon religious minorities in 1986 and one that shows no sign of slowing down, much less stopping.
There is no end to Pakistan’s blasphemy, no end to the depravation religious minorities are undergoing on a daily basis. I have been away from blogging for some time – partly due to university work but mostly due to the mental exhaustion and weariness one feels after reading, seeing and hearing about case after case after case of Christian torture, beating, murder . Although I write about a story that occurred a few weeks ago, even deciding to write about it years later would make no difference. The Islam I have ever known continues to persecute non-adherents mercilessly. The country of Pakistan has long become synonymous with religious intolerance, hatred and sectarian violence to the point where the difference between the testimonies of Asia Bibi, Shabhaz Bhatti and now Shehzad & Shama Masih is non-existent. For increasingly so, the blood of Pakistan’s Christians are being spilt in the name of blasphemy.
Blasphemy that is non-sensical when screamed from the mouth of a vengeful Muslim to evoke the Blasphemy Law – a blasphemy unto itself. There will be no end of accusing Pakistan’s Christians of blaspheming against Muhammad, against Muslims and against Islam itself. So long as hatred remains towards non-Muslims throughout the Islamic world, the much revered construction that is the blasphemy penal code will remain in force. Remain in force to be used to throw countless people into jail, rejecting their every appeal, whilst mistreating them and their families. This irrevocably changes the lives of the accused’s families, as they perpetually run for their lives, continually at risk of being hunted down like the animals they have become in their own country.
As many of you already know I have long become accustomed to this wretched Blasphemy Law, rendering me numb upon any case-study I stumble across. But as world leaders converge in combating any negative portrayal of Islam, as billions of aid pours through the Middle East and beyond, it is utterly incomprehensible to turn a blind eye to the treatment of Shehzad & Shama Masih, a young Christian couple beaten and burned to death. This couple was accused of desecrating Quranic pages and were dragged by a local mob, where they were then subsequently tied up, legs broken and burnt to death. Such treatment of these parents of three (with a fourth child on the way) should trigger the question of why, when billions of aid pumped into Pakistan to develop and benefit the nation – why Western leaders and the wider Christian world in particular – fail to actively show their opposition to such anti- Christian behaviour, particularly] when such aid is still essentially Christian aid.
One cannot help but feel blind anger at the lack of Pakistani government action in addition to international response. The beating and burning of any Muslim mother of three, whilst four months pregnant would no doubt spark global outrage ,with Obama himself probably racing to the nearest podium to be heard first. Instead the lack of authoritative action against Christian persecution is becoming severely dire. As Father James Channan, coordinator of the United Religions Initiative and director of the Peace Centre of the Dominican Order in Pakistan, stated: ” Our present government has the worst record of not punishing the culprits of these cases. All of them are set free after a short time. There is a big question for us: Where is justice?”
Dr. Nazir S. Bhatti remarked in a letter to Obama that the U.S. Administration — the custodian of human rights, liberty and freedom of speech and expression around the world — did not even bother to condemn the horrific murder of the Christian couple by Islamic extremists in Pakistan. Moreover, the U.S. State Department has never uttered any comments at all about Christian persecution or the genocide of Christians.
There is no end to blasphemy in Pakistan. My question to global leaders is this: why do you think the Pakistani government pardons Sunni criminals, whilst Asia Bibi is detained in prison, deprived of her children? Why can Pakistani police be bribed to dismiss murder, theft, domestic violence whilst one accusation of blasphemy against the nation’s Christians see them immediately arresting and detaining them indefinitely? The brutal reality of the situation is that Western leadership do not recognise the three million Christian Pakistanis who live in constant fear of the growing intolerance and hostility against them, nor have they made the connection between the concentration of blasphemy accusations in the Punjab province, a region home to two million of Pakistan’s Christians.
Moreover, the fundamentalist 725 Madrassa schools of Pakistan have become an influential power supporting the blasphemy laws. Total Madrassa attendance stands at 1.5 million students. These religious schools are producing a particular world-view called Alem-e-kufr (the World of Infidels) whereby the concept of these religious schools is: “The world is divided into two antagonistic parts: the Islamic world, and the infidel world. With little common ground between them both, clash is eternal, natural and unavoidable, because the forces of evil and forces of good are predestined to be at war. The West is after us, they want to destroy Muslims, Islam and our culture.”
The general silence on Pakistani blasphemed Christians is excruciating, tacitly approving and allowing this barbaric behaviour to thrive. Given the circumstance, scores more of Christian couples, children and the elderly will continued to be smeared with this life-threatening penal code. A code that relishes in the spilling of non-Sunni blood. A law that holds no reverence for age. A law that takes away the concept of life before it is even born.
There is no end to the blasphemy of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.