Praying for Asia Bibi and Christians in Pakistan

I wonder what you were doing in June 2009. It most probably so long ago, that you have forgotten.

In June 2009, Asia Bibi, or to give her her full name, Aasiya Noreen living with her husband and five children in a village in the Punjab, Pakistan, about 30 miles from Lahore. Asia and her husband Ashiq Masih were the only Christians in the village. Everyone else was a Muslim. That made life difficult for them but they managed, even though like most Christians in Pakistan the only work that was available to them was menial work. Ashiq worked as a brick labourer, and Asia as a farmhand.

 

One day during that June of 2009, Asia was working with a group of other women farmhands from the village, harvesting falsa berries in a field. Some of the other women asked Asia to go and fetch water for them from a nearby well.

Once she had collected the water, she saw an old metal cup on the ground and used it take a drink from the water.  A neighbour of Asia’s saw her do this and angrily told her it was forbidden for a Christian to drink water from the same pot that Muslims drink from.

As others gathered around her, further accusing remarks were made about her Christian faith, and the group demanded that Asia convert to Islam. She replied to them: 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? An argument ensued.

Once the group were home from the field, the incident was repeated in various homes and in the mosque. A mob gathered and marched to Asia’s house, where she was severely beaten in front of her children. The police arrived and took her away. They allegedly investigated the incident and decided to arrest her for breaking Pakistan’s Penal Code, Section 295C. The accusation against her was that she had broken Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Put at its most basic, the blasphemy law states that anyone who insults or defames the name of Mohammad must be put to death. 

 

In November 2010 a judge in the court of Sheikhupura, Punjab, sentenced Asia to death by hanging - the first woman in Pakistan to be sentenced to death over a blasphemy charge.

From her prison cell Asia described her reaction the day she heard her sentence:

 I cried alone, putting my head in my hands. I can no longer bear the sight of people full of hatred, applauding the killing of a poor farm worker. I no longer see them, but I still hear them, the crowd who gave the judge a standing ovation, saying: "Kill her, kill her! Allahu Akbar!"

The court house was invaded by a euphoric horde who broke down the doors, chanting: "Vengeance for the holy prophet. Allah is great!"

I was then thrown like an old rubbish sack into the van ... I had lost all humanity in their eyes.

Asia was put in solitary confinement in an 8-by-10-foot (2.4 m × 3.0 m) cell without windows at the Lahore prison. The very real danger was that other prisoners might try to kill her. Other inmates certainly threatened her and prison guards physically abused her. Out of concern that she could be poisoned, prison officials began giving her raw materials to cook her own food.

The Governor of Punjab took up her case. Because of his outspoken support for Asia and his opposition to the blasphemy laws, a member of his own security team, shot him on the 4th January 2011. The security guard was arrested and found guilty of killing the Governor. Many in Pakistan saw the murderer as a hero for defending the honour of Mohammad. He was hanged but at his funeral in 2016, thousands converged on the northern city of Rawalpindi. Leaders of prominent Islamist political parties attended the funeral and supporters carried signs in celebration of his "bravery." His grave, in the capital city of Islamabad, has since become a shrine for those supporting Asia Bibi's death sentence.

 

The only Christian member of the Pakistan cabinet was Shabbaz Bhatti. He was appointed as Minority Affairs Minister in the government with responsibility to care for minority groups in Pakistan. Despite threats of beheading, he told reporters that he was committed to the principle of justice for the people of Pakistan and willing to die fighting for Asia's release. On 2 March 2011, Shabbaz Bhatti was shot dead by gunmen who ambushed his car near his residence in Islamabad,

 

Christians around the globe have taken up Asia’s cause  with American journalist John L Allen, Jr. writing that she is almost certainly the most famous illiterate Punjabi farm worker and mother of five on the planet.

 

Despite that publicity and worldwide support for her cause, Pakistan refused to yield. In October 2014, the Lahore High Court dismissed her appeal and upheld her death sentence. In July 2015, the death sentence was suspended whilst a new appeal process started. A date was sent for March 2016, and then rescheduled for October 2016. Finally in October 2018 the highest court in the land acquitted her of all blasphemy charges and the court ruled she could go free.

 

It is said that Asia was reading her Bible when she heard the news. She exclaimed: I can't believe what I am hearing. Will I go out now? Will they let me out, really? ... I just don't know what to say. I am very happy. I can't believe it.

Her daughter’s reaction was to say that all she wanted to do was to hug her Mum.

 

The reaction in Pakistan was very different. Islamic groups took to the streets, blocking roads. Islamabad's main highway was blocked by approximately a thousand club-wielding demonstrators. Mobs chanted for the death of the three Supreme Court Justices who had made the decision. The National Highways and Motorway Police advised commuters to refrain from travelling on motorways and national highways on account of the law and order situation across the country

 

So we come to the situation today.

 

It is said that Asia has been moved for her own safety from her prison to an unknown prison-turned-safe-house over fears her life is in danger. Extremists are said to be going from house to house to try to find her and her family, to kill them. To achieve calm in the country, the government have agreed that she cannot leave the country.

 

A number of countries have said that they would welcome her and her family if a way can be found for her to leave the country. A country can only grant asylum to a person once a person is in that country. Asia has no passport or exit visa. Pakistan won’t give her one.

It is said that some countries may have agreed to welcome Asia and her family. Canada and Australia are two of the countries named. Sadly Britain does not seem to be offering asylum to her and her family. According to newspaper articles the government of the day are concerned about her arrival causing unrest amongst the Pakistani community already in Britain and damaging relationships with members of the Islam faith.

How we need to pray for Asia, and her family. Think of her children who have had to grow up without their mother, constantly on the move for fear of attack from Muslim extremists, and surrounded by people expressing such hatred towards the family. Pray too for Christians in Pakistan. Whatever happens now to Asia and her family, will have a backlash against them.

The Church of Jesus Christ is strong and vibrant, but these are our brothers and sisters and need our support.

Gordon Pettie

December 2018.

 

 

 

2018-12-03