Asia Bibi is finally out of Pakistan. Officials have confirmed that Asia has been released. Her lawyer has told CNN she is now in Canada, where two of her daughters have already been granted asylum.
The Christian woman was acquitted of blasphemy by the Pakistan Supreme Court last year, but has not been free to leave the country. Instead, she has had to live in safe houses to escape extremists who continue to call for her to be killed.
Asia was originally charged with blasphemy after sharing a cup of water with Muslim farmworkers, who called her unclean because she was a Christian.
‘It’s a big day,’ Asia’s lawyer, Saif Ul Malook, told The Guardian. ‘Asia Bibi has left Pakistan and reached Canada. She has reunited with her family.’
Release International has long been campaigning for Asia’s freedom and the repeal of Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws.
Release International is now calling for Pakistan to review the cases of 200 other Christians behind bars for blasphemy.
When Asia Bibi was acquitted by the Supreme Court in October 2018, thousands of militants took to the streets calling for her death and for the overthrow of the government. The Supreme Court decision was challenged and later upheld on January 29 this year.
Even then, Asia was not free to go, but had to remain in hiding, while extremists searched for her door-to-door. Her 10-year ordeal was not yet over.
UK-based Release International supports persecuted Christians around the world. Its CEO Paul Robinson says: ‘We are overjoyed that Asia is finally free. But why has it taken so long for this innocent woman to be allowed to leave?
‘The government of Pakistan must act now to safeguard its Christian minority against mob reprisals by stepping up security against any suggestion of rioting and violence.
‘And it must urgently review the case against every other prisoner who has been accused and jailed for blasphemy.’
Release partners in Pakistan say there are 218 other Christians who still face blasphemy charges – a disproportionate number of those accused. And when they are accused, individuals, families and entire communities face violence at the hands of vigilantes.
The British Pakistani Christian Association believes nine out of ten Pakistanis still consider Asia Bibi to be a blasphemer, making her a target for assassination.
Adds Paul Robinson: ‘In the Asia Bibi case, the Supreme Court revealed what Release has been saying for years, that accusations of blasphemy can be malicious and built on lies, simply to settle scores. These blasphemy cases – and the blasphemy law itself – must now come under review.’
According to the BBC, since 1990 more than 70 people have been killed by lynch mobs after being accused of blasphemy.
And Amnesty International describes a large increase in blasphemy cases since the 1980s: ‘According to [the National Commission for Justice and Peace] NCJP, a total of 633 Muslims, 494 Ahmadis, 187 Christians and 21 Hindus have been accused under various provisions on offences related to religion since 1987.’
Since that figure was compiled Release partners put the number of Christians higher – at 218.
The influence of Islamist parties in Pakistan is growing.
Islamist parties are calling for a tightening of Sharia (Islamic law). At their most extreme, they are campaigning for a harder line against blasphemy. The Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP), is calling for blasphemers to be put to death. During the elections the party’s slogan was ‘Death to blasphemers’.
After the initial Supreme Court decision, TLP supporters flooded streets in several cities calling for Asia Bibi to be hanged and the government to be overthrown. After a long, tense standoff, the ringleaders were arrested.
TLP banners have depicted ‘holy warriors’ who have murdered alleged blasphemers. These include Mumtaz Qadri, the bodyguard who assassinated Punjab governor Salman Taseer after he called for the repeal of the country’s blasphemy laws.
In March 2011, the only Christian member of the cabinet was shot dead for backing his call to change the blasphemy laws. Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti had earlier received death threats for speaking out. Even to want to discuss the blasphemy laws was, it seemed, an act of blasphemy.
Prime Minister Imran Khan has since apparently nailed his colours to the mast over the blasphemy laws. He said, ‘We are standing with article 295c and will defend it.’ 295c is the blasphemy clause that mandates the death penalty for any ‘imputation, insinuation or innuendo’ against Islam’s prophet Mohammed.
Release International has long campaigned for the repeal of the blasphemy laws. These notorious laws are often used to target minorities and to take out rivals.
Few accused of blasphemy can live in safety, even if they are acquitted. Extremist vigilantes see it as their religious duty to put them to death.
Christians face harassment in Pakistan in a variety of ways. Hundreds of women and girls are abducted each year, and many are forced into marriages with Muslim men. Christians are harassed for wearing religious symbols and have been targeted by Islamic State terrorists and the Taliban. The most extreme case was the Lahore bombing in Easter 2016 of a children’s play area, frequented by Christians.
Release is training Christian leaders in Pakistan and teaching villagers to stand firm against persecution and discrimination. Release is also producing and distributing radio programmes and video materials, as well as portions of Scripture.
Through its international network of missions Release International is active in some 30 countries around the world, supporting pastors, Christian prisoners and their families; supplying Christian literature and Bibles, and working for justice.