It all started on a Friday. That’s a significant day for both Muslims and Christians. For Islam, it is the weekly day for gathering at the local mosque. For Christians it is the weekly commemoration of Jesus’ crucifixion.
On Friday, June 19, 2009, Asia Bibi, a 37-year-old mother of two, was working in the fields with other women from her village. Hers was one of three Christian families in a village of 1,500 Muslim families. Just as they had many times before, the women were pressuring Asia to renounce Christ and to accept Islam. But this day’s conversation was especially intense.
Asia explained that Jesus died on the cross for sins and asked what Muhammed had done for them. She told them that Jesus rose from the grave and is alive, but that Muhammed is dead. Then she said, “Our Christ is the true prophet of God and yours is not true.”
These are the most basic beliefs of Christians around the world and have been since the day that Jesus first appeared to his disciples and showed them the nail holes in his hands and the spear hole in his side. But that day Asia’s coworkers responded by beating her until some men carted her off to a locked room.
They announced over the mosque’s loudspeakers that she would be punished by having her face blackened and being paraded through the village on a donkey — presumably to mock the way that Jesus had entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Some Christians sought help from the police.
But rather than protecting her from the mob, the police arrested her and charged her with blasphemy according to Pakistan Penal Code 295-C. This clause was added in 1986 and prohibits, “Use of derogatory remarks, spoken, written, directly or indirectly, etc. defiles the name of Muhammed or other Prophet(s).” Conviction brings a mandatory death sentence and a fine.
Seventeen months later, Asia was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to death by hanging. That was the beginning of eight years spent on death row. Her lawyers immediately appealed to the Lahore High Court, but she remained on death row as that court slow-walked her appeal.
Blasphemy laws have been on the books in Pakistan since British colonial days, but they were significantly strengthened in the mid-1980s. To date, the Pakistani government has never carried out an execution for blasphemy. Nevertheless, since 1990, 62 people have been murdered in vigilante actions after being accused of blasphemy.
This was the most immediate threat to Bibi. Muslim cleric Maulana Yousaf Qureshi promised a half-million rupees ($6,300) to anyone who would kill her. Asia’s husband and children went into hiding in order to avoid being killed themselves.
There have also been numerous times when government officials have been assassinated for defending people against blasphemy charges. This happened in Asia’s case as well.
Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer gave an interview on Pakistani television in which he spoke about filing a petition for mercy in Bibi’s case. Shortly thereafter, in January of 2011, his bodyguard shot him 27 times in broad daylight.
Pakistani Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti also paid the ultimate price. He was the only Christian cabinet member and was advocating for Bibi’s release. On March 2, 2011, he was being driven to work when his driver saw armed men approaching the vehicle. Rather than taking evasive action, his driver stopped the car and ducked. Bhatti died in a hail of bullets.
After four years of political delays, the Lahore High Court finally heard her case in October of 2014. The ruling upheld her conviction and death sentence. Bibi’s lawyers this time appealed to the Supreme Court of Pakistan.
Four more years passed while a petition that garnered 400,000 signatures brought her case to international attention. Then, on Oct. 31, 2018, Pakistan’s Supreme Court overturned her conviction citing “material contradictions and inconsistent statements of the witnesses.”
This ruling touched off a series of riots across the country. After three days, the Pakistani government quelled the riots by signing an agreement with the Islamist party that organized them. It agreed to keep Bibi from leaving the country.
Thus, even though she had been acquitted by the highest court in the land, and released from prison, she was still effectively living on death row. Her family was forced to leave the country, but she could not.
Bibi’s accusers used the time to file a petition appealing the Supreme Court’s decision. When that petition was rejected on Jan. 29, the last legal obstacle to Bibi’s freedom was removed. Since that day, negotiations have been under way for Asia to join her family in Canada.
On Wednesday, May 8, Asia Bibi landed in Canada. This marked the end of a decade-long ordeal begun when she told her fellow villagers what she knew to be true. Those of us who have been following her case for years are breathing a deep sign of relief. Still, her struggle is not over.
Asia has been denied the joy of raising her daughters during the most formative years of their lives. After remembering on Mother’s Day the many gifts we received from our own mothers, it is easier to understand what was stolen from Asia Bibi’s daughters.
She was also forcibly separated from her husband for 10 years. Even now, she will likely never be able to use her own name in public and will need to live with bodyguards and the constant threat of assassination.
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, and the damage they have done to Asia Bibi, stand in sharp contrast to the freedom of religion that is guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution. What we should notice most of all is that religious freedom is not only about the freedom to worship. True freedom is the freedom to live and speak of one’s religion at work and in the public square.
Asia and her family were always allowed to worship. What got her in trouble was that she spoke of her faith in the workplace. What led to the assassination of a provincial governor and a Pakistani government official is that they defended Bibi in the halls of government.
Blasphemy laws deem some speech to be intolerable. Those in power get to decide which words can be punished and which not. In a majority Muslim country, the simple statement that Muhammed is not a true prophet can be punished by death. In a communist country, challenges to Marx or Mao can bring the same sentence.
In the bitterest of ironies, Asia’s quest for religious freedom brought her to a place that has already begun to enact blasphemy laws of its own. Canada has already arrested and fined Christians for quoting the Bible in public. They have denied jobs and revoked licenses to people who refuse to mouth Canada’s new orthodoxy. Recently, they even forced a father to stop speaking of his own daughter.
Asia Bibi has finally been given freedom to defend her faith in the face of Muslim challenges. It remains to be seen how long she will be allowed to defend the same faith in the face of Canada’s blasphemy laws.
Jonathan Lange is an LCMS pastor in Evanston and Kemmerer and serves the Wyoming Pastors Network. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow his blog at OnlyHuman-JL.blogspot.com.