by Tess Daniels
Pakistan’s Supreme Court has acquitted and freed Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Roman Catholic woman who has spent eight years on death row for blasphemy. The news of her release has sparked violent protests and death threats against authorities from Pakistani Muslims. The media widely reported that Ms. Bibi had been flown out of the country, inciting more outrage; however, Pakistani officials denied any such action.
Ms. Bibi, a former farmworker in her early 50s, was embroiled in this controversy in 2009. She had gone to pick berries with her Muslim co-workers and brought water for them, but the Muslim women refused to touch the water bowl. A bitter argument ensued, with the Muslims claiming that Ms. Bibi had then uttered vile abuses against Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. Ms. Bibi insisted that she had not, yet was still arrested for blasphemy.
Blasphemy remains a highly contentious issue in Pakistan. The law prescribes a death sentence for anyone convicted of insulting Islam or the Prophet Muhammad. After Ms. Bibi’s release, some religious leaders called for the three Supreme Court judges who acquitted Ms. Bibi to be killed. Protestors in Islamabad blocked one of the main highways that connect the capital to the neighboring city of Rawalpindi. “They’ve made a mockery of Islam with this verdict, and we will hold them accountable,” said a protester, Saqib Ali, 30. “Her freedom means all others who want to say anything against Islam know they will be protected by the courts.”
Since the protests broke out, anxiety has run high in Pakistani Christian communities, where Christians are horrified by the violence and hatred around them. The Christian population of Pakistan is about 3 million of Pakistan’s 208 million citizens. Christians worry that the outbursts could easily flare up again and that they could be targeted next. Ms. Bibi’s family has appealed for asylum, as protestors in the streets call for her and her family’s executions. Her lawyer, Saiful Malook, has already left Pakistan, escaping threats to his own life.
However, both her family and her lawyer reported of Ms. Bibi’s remarkable peace within prison. “I was amazed when I met her, she was in a wonderful mood, very happy, [with] no depression,” her lawyer Malook commented. Malook also says that he’s never seen “such a strong woman in my life, nor have I read about it in a book story [sic]: she’s been behind bars for 9 years, leaving behind two daughters, and she’s still so strong. I would have been broken in six months.” Last February, Ashiq Masih and Eisham Ashiq, the husband and daughter of Ms. Bibi, traveled to Rome to meet with Pope Francis and to raise awareness about the millions of Christians persecuted daily for their faith. In an interview during the trip, Ms. Bibi’s husband said that his wife “lives her imprisonment with great faith and entrusts herself to the Lord every day.”