Asia Bibi, 41, a Pakistani Catholic woman, the mother of five children, has been held in solitary confinement in a Pakistani jail for the last three years on charges of blasphemy against Islam and the Prophet Mohammed. Her cell is bare; it does not even have a latrine bucket.
On June 14, 2009, Asia, a Catholic farm worker from a remote Punjabi village, was harvesting berries on the estate of a wealthy landowner with her co-workers in 100-degree heat. Thirsty, she drew water from the estate well, dipped her cup into the bucket and drank large mouthfuls. One of the other farm hands, “her eyes filled with hatred,” screamed out “Haraam!” — a term meaning “forbidden” in Islamic law. To the other workers, stirred by the commotion, she screamed: “This Christian has defiled the water from the well by drinking from our cup and by repeatedly plunging it into the well. The water is now impure. We can no longer drink it because of her.”
Asia was arrested under Section 295c of the Pakistan Penal Code, which forbids blasphemy against the Prophet Mohammed, and imprisoned pending trial. In November 2010, Muhammed Iqbal, a judge at the court of Sheikhupura, sentenced her to death by hanging.
Asia later described the moment to a friend who has written a book about her case: “I cried alone, putting my head in my hands… I still hear them, the crowd who gave the judge a standing ovation, saying: ‘Kill her, kill her! Allahu akbar!’… I was then thrown like an old rubbish sack into the van… I had lost all humanity in their eyes.”
Still today, Asia languishes in an isolated wing of Sheikhupura Prison awaiting the result of her appeal against Judge Iqbal’s decision. She is under 24-hour surveillance to protect her from other prisoners and jailers tempted to collect the $6,000 reward offered by a local Muslim leader to anyone who kills her.
The reward is not just monetary. Salman Taseer, a Pakistani politician, was murdered on January 4, 2011, in Islamabad because of his public support of Asia. His assassin is now a national hero. A few weeks after Taseer’s murder at the hands of his bodyguard, Shahbaz Bhatti, the Catholic Federal Minister for Minorities’ Affairs — the only Catholic minister in the government — was gunned down for his public criticism of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Asia described hearing the news of Bhatti’s murder in these words: “I felt that someone had squeezed my heart really hard, right inside my body. I was frozen in terror. My legs no longer held me. I collapsed on my bed, breathing heavily. I saw the walls of the prison crack, then fall in on me.”
Far beyond the borders of her native Pakistan, Asia’s story has become an emblem of religious persecution.
In November 2010, Pope Benedict spoke of his spiritual closeness to her and called for her release. This was a wake-up call to Western governments and media, whose silence over the persecution of Christians worldwide adds up to a glaring moral blind spot.
In Pakistan, Asia says, Christians are like orphans in their own land. On paper, they have the same rights as everyone else. In practice, they do their best not to draw the attention of the rest of society. At home, she says, there is no cross or icon of the Holy Virgin – only a small Bible hidden under the mattress.
More than 80 percent of acts of discrimination and violence against minority groups, which are growing in a number of places around the world, are directed against Christians.
Asia pleads with readers at the end of her autobiography: “Now that you know me, tell those around you what is happening. Let them know about it. I believe this is my only chance of not dying in the pit of this dungeon. I need you! Save me!”
There are many things we can do to answer her appeal, not least to tell her story, pray for her and ask our governments to make appeals to Pakistan.
The Church in Pakistan says that all of the efforts to prevent the execution of Asia Bibi require prudence on the part of her defenders.
The director of the National Committee on Justice and Peace of the Bishops’ Conference of Pakistan, Father Emannuel Yousaf Mani, has said the concern to help Bibi is understandable. “But the life of this woman is very important to us, and we will do nothing to endanger her life,” he said. “We should wait in silence for the court to hear her appeal.” A “pardon amidst a climate of contentious public opinion,” he added, “would not necessarily save the lives of Asia Bibi and her family.”
Anne-Isabelle Tollet, a French journalist and author of the book Get Me Out of Here, which tells Asia’s story, says all the members of Asia’s family “are under death threats and live in hiding, moving frequently and unable to work. The children miss their mother very much and they have stopped going to school out of safety concerns. The youngest child is only nine years old.”