The joy which met the news that the Pakistan Supreme Court had revoked the 2010 conviction of blasphemy was tempered with the realisation that ‘freedom’ might be an even bigger challenge for Asia Bibi. She has become the poster-girl for Pakistan’s infamous blasphemy law. The law carries the death penalty, a verdict which has not yet been carried out and it is this absence of capital punishment that has enraged some Islamists.
Asia Bibi, who is a Roman Catholic, like most Pakistani Christians was a low caste worker acting as a servant for a group of Muslin women who were harvesting berries. She was returning to the group with some water but because she had taken a drink it was said that the water was contaminated by her drinking it. An argument ensued in which the Muslim women freely blasphemed Jesus claiming he was a bastard as he had no father and other such derogatory statements about Christianity requesting that she become a Muslim.
It was in this context that Asia said, “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?”
Five days later Asia was challenged by a mob who beat her and, returning to her home, attacked her family also. The local Mosque used its loudspeakers to accuse her of blasphemy and encouraged people to take the law into their own hands. Asia was imprisoned and a year later, formally charged. The charges which were put before the court were exaggerated and Asia was handed the death penalty.
The sentence was appealed and support given by the governor of Punjab who investigated the affair on behalf of the President, Asif Ali Zardari. The governor and his wife visited Asia a number of times and anticipated an acquittal. He was shot by his Islamist bodyguard.
The Minority Affairs Minister said that he was first threatened with death in June 2010 because of his support for Asia. He was shot through the window of his car about a year later. He had been the only Christian member of Pakistan’s cabinet. In subsequent hearings there has been an understandable reluctance to depart from the guilty verdict and the case has acquired a significance far beyond its importance because of the draconian blasphemy law.
All this makes the acquittal verdict reached this week highly significant. There have been calls for the death of the three supreme court judges. The Tehreek-e-Labaik Islamism political party, who have made the upholding of the blasphemy law their main cause, have created civil disturbances in a number of cities. They want to have the verdict reversed and are calling for Asia’s death. Yesterday the government, in an effort to placate them, have said Asia cannot leave the country. Asia has exchanged one prison for another!
Jesus said, “A time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God” (St John Chapter 16 verse 2). That time is now here. It shows the intimate connection between witness and martyrdom that Jesus foresaw. “Have faith in God” (St Mark Chapter 11 verse 22).