November 1, 2016
Wilberforce A!ert: Update: Asia Bibi and Growing Religious Intolerance in Pakistan
In 2010, record flooding devastated Pakistan, killing 2,000 Pakistanis and displacing an estimated 20 million more. Today, a new kind of flood imperils this beleaguered, Muslim-majority country – a flood of hatred, religious intolerance and vigilantism inspired by the nation’s draconian blasphemy laws.
In the year of the flood, Asia Bibi, an unassuming Christian mother of five, was sentenced to death by the Pakistani government. Her crime: Drinking a cup of water. The charge against her was blasphemy, and her sentence was death.
The details of Asia’s ordeal are astonishing and have stirred an international human rights outcry. On one fateful day in 2009, Asia was working in the fields in the heat of an oppressive sun. She drank from a communal well to quench her thirst and was accused of defiling the water for her fellow Muslim workers. Her accuser, who already had a personal dispute with Asia, used Pakistan’s arcane blasphemy laws to exact revenge on Asia. Beaten by an angry mob, Asia was then imprisoned, where she has languished for seven years, separated from her children and husband, who themselves live in hiding for fear of reprisal.
Religious fanaticism in support of blasphemy laws now grips Pakistan. In 2014, 336 new blasphemy cases were filed in the Punjab province alone. Two high-profile officials – Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer and Religious Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti – have been assassinated for defending Asia and for speaking out against the laws. Last month, radical Muslim clerics demanded the immediate execution of Asia and other prisoners also accused of violating the blasphemy laws, extending their death threats to anyone aiding the offenders.
A climate of intimidation and tension continues to build in Pakistan. In a recent policy brief, international watchdog organization Freedom House concluded:
“Pakistan’s blasphemy laws foster an environment of intolerance and impunity, and lead to violations of a broad range of human rights, including the obvious rights of freedom of expression and freedom of religion, as well as freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention; the right to due process and a fair trial; freedom from torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment; and the right to life and security of the person.”
Which brings us back to Asia Bibi. Her final appeal before the Pakistani Supreme Court was scheduled a few weeks ago, but as the three-judge panel convened on October 13, one of the judges, Iqbal Hameedur Rehman, suddenly recused himself then later resigned his post entirely. As a result, Asia’s appeal has been postponed indefinitely. She remains on death row.
Meanwhile, there are reports that radical activists have staged demonstrations – including a #HangAsia campaign – across Pakistan demanding Asia’s execution and promising widespread violence if the government releases her. While Asia gained a reprieve of sorts last month, her future is anything but certain. Former Pakistani Parliament member Farahnaz Ispahani and Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom at Hudson Institute offer this sobering conclusion if Pakistan’s government does not stand up to radical extremists: “Realistically, she may never get her day in court. And Pakistan would take a step closer to the edge of political and cultural chaos.”
Erin Rodewald, guest contributor
1. Add your voice in support of Asia Bibi’s immediate release. Petition the Pakistani government or sign one of the multiple international petitions demanding freedom for Asia: Embassy of Pakistan, Voice of the Martyrs, ACLJ.
2. Read about Asia Bibi’s ordeal in her own words.