At last, Asia Bibi is free. Six months after her acquittal on a trumped-up charge of blasphemy, the Pakistani government has confirmed that she has left the country. After nearly a decade behind bars, awaiting execution, she is now in Canada – where last week, for the first time since her imprisonment, she was able to hold her daughters Esha and Eisham in her arms.
But the story of anti-Christian persecution goes on: and it poses questions for Pakistan, as well as the international community – perhaps especially Britain, which failed Asia Bibi and continues to fail beleaguered Christians around the world.
By some estimates, more than 70 people are currently on death row in Pakistan for alleged blasphemy crimes. Bibi’s own former prison cell in Multan is already occupied by another impoverished Christian woman, Shagufta Kauser. In 2014, she and her disabled husband were sentenced to death for allegedly sending blasphemous text messages – even though the couple are illiterate and the messages were in English.
The oppression of the country’s 2.5 million Christians – about 1.5 per cent of the population – goes even further. During my visit last year, I saw the shanty towns where Christian families live in one- or two-room hovels with dirt floors and no running water or electricity. There is little education or health provision. These “colonies” are reminiscent of apartheid South Africa – only without the attendant mass protests by the Left.
Inevitably, Pakistani Christians are especially vulnerable to kidnappers. In recent years, at least 1,000 women belonging to religious minorities, some of them minors, have been abducted, forcibly converted and often married to those very abductors. In the worst cases, after sexual and physical abuse, the kidnappers sell the girls into slavery and send them to brothels.
Police often show little or no interest in helping the parents. Even if the case reaches the courts, the abducted are threatened and told that if they tell the court about their kidnappings, their parents and siblings will be killed.
That is not to mention the appalling violence – Christians being burned alive in brick ovens – and the threat of terrorism: three years ago, as Christians gathered to celebrate Easter in Lahore’s Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park, a suicide bombing killed at least 75 people and injured more than 340.
Yet we should remember the other side of Pakistan. Two leading political figures – Shahbaz Bhatti, the Christian minister for minorities, and his friend, Salman Taseer, the Muslim Governor of the Punjab – were assassinated for daring to challenge Asia Bibi’s conviction. The country’s most senior judges showed great courage, twice acquitting her despite mass protests encouraged by Islamist figures such as Hafiz Ehtisham Ahmed – who was quoted by the Guardian as saying that Bibi “deserves to be murdered according to Sharia”.
Yet tolerance is also part of Pakistan’s heritage: in 1948 its illustrious founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, said the country’s minorities must be given equal citizenship and a place of dignity and respect. He even insisted that the white in the nation’s flag should represent the country’s minorities. His legacy lives on – but there is a struggle underway for the future of Pakistan.
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