There is a big showdown coming in Pakistan and the stakes are high. On October 5, 2016 the Supreme Court was scheduled to hear the final appeal of Asia Bibi, a Catholic Christian woman condemned to death for blasphemy. The appeal has been delayed without the court setting a new date. If she does lose her appeal she will be the first woman hanged under the present law.
She has been in custody since 2009 and was condemned to death by the High Court in November 2010. In 2014 the Lahore High Court upheld the sentence against her but in a striking ruling the Supreme Court temporarily halted her execution citing a lack of evidence against her.
What is her horrendous crime? While working with other women labourers in the hot sun she drank from the same cup that the Muslim women drank from. They took exception because she was a Christian and called her action ‘impure’. One word led to another and it is said that Asia asked a provocative question: Jesus died on the Cross to save all people, what has Muhammed done? A woman with whom she was having a disagreement about another matter instigated the charge.
Arrested and physically abused, the mother of five has been in prison under strict security to ensure her safety. Both the Government and the Supreme High Court recognise that the existing blasphemy laws, inherited as a part of the ‘Islamicising’ legislation of the military dictator Zia ul Haq in the 1980’s, are being seriously abused especially against minority people. The Government recognises that the law requires legislative and judicial attention.
But there is trouble. While international pressure calling for Asia’s release has been building through a petition with 400,000 signatures, enormous internal pressure from extremist Muslim movements is being exerted against the government. Five years ago, 100,000 people organised a sit-in in front of the government buildings in Islamabad.
They demanded the government retract any proposal they may have to reform the blasphemy laws and also the execution of Asia Bibi as conditions for their withdrawal.
There have already been casualties. Minorities Minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic and the Punjab Governor, Salmaan Tosser, a Muslim, were gunned down for advocating on Asia’s behalf and for opposing the blasphemy laws. When Muntaz Qadri, the self-confessed murderer of Salmaan Tosser was hanged for this crime, huge protest demonstrations broke out proclaiming Muntaz Qadri a martyr.
If Asia Bibi is found innocent of the charge of blasphemy, the Christian community will brace itself for retribution from mobs of extremists who will rampage through their areas.
France, Spain and Italy have offered her and her husband and five children a new life. She and her family would not be safe in Pakistan and what of the Supreme Court judges and their families?
Let us pray for Asia Bibi and her family, for the Supreme Court judges hearing this charge, and for the minority peoples of Pakistan.
Fr Gary Walker SSC
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