Asia Bibi: Encounter with an icon

While in France, Asia Bibi has requested political asylum. This Pakistani Christian woman, whose fate ACN has followed closely since she was first sentenced in 2010, recently gave an interview with the French national office of ACN.

 Quite obviously, Asia Bibi is tired. Interviews and official meetings have taken up the few days she has spent in France. Nonetheless, she manages to smile for the photographers with their constantly clicking cameras and valiantly consents to the long succession of interviews. “It is thanks to the media that I am still alive”, she insists.

The victim of an absurd law

In fact, she owes the end of her personal Calvary to one French journalist in particular, Anne-Isabelle Tollet, whom she calls “her sister” and who has helped her with the publication of the book Enfin libre! (Free at last! French edition published by éditions du Rocher). This autobiography relates how this Pakistani Catholic peasant woman has come to be a world icon of resistance to Islamic fundamentalism. Accused of blasphemy by her Muslim neighbours, Asia Bibi spent nine years in prison under sentence of death and faced with the constant threat of execution. Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy laws are frequently invoked simply as a means of settling scores between neighbours, and they can have the direst consequences. Often those accused in this way have been simply lynched by enraged crowds or else “disappear” or commit “suicide” in prison. The media attention given to the case of Asia Bibi undoubtedly helped save her from this fate. Finally acquitted on appeal by Pakistan’s Supreme Court on 31 October 2018, she was at last able – thanks to the international pressure and after numerous different twists and turns – to escape the country for Canada on 8 May 2019. And now there exists a landmark legal precedent, a so-called “Asia Bibi law” which enables those accused of blasphemy to fight back against their accusers. The anti-blasphemy laws still exist unchanged in Pakistan, but at least there is now a greater risk in using them to unjustly accuse another individual.

Asia Bibi.
Asia Bibi.

“We have been Christians there for over a thousand years”

“I could never have imagined ever being famous”, Asia Bibi insists in her quiet, gentle voice. She tells of a happy childhood in her native Pakistan: “I used to play together with my Muslim neighbours; there was never any separation” she recalls nostalgically. Baptised at the age of eight, she never faced any difficulties in living her faith. Speaking of her religious heritage, she recalls the ancient roots of Christianity in Pakistan: “W unclean e have been Christians there for over 1000 years.” However, as she grew up, she became aware of differences separating Christians and Muslims in her country. She heard people speak of attacks against Christians, some of whom had been lynched by enraged crowds. There were also cases of Muslim men in search of a bride simply abducting young Christian women and forcibly “converting” them in order to marry them.

Christians seen as “unclean”

She also discovered that Muslims regarded Christians as “unclean”. It was on account of this belief in fact that her life abruptly changed on one extremely hot day, 14 June 2009. She was working with some Muslim neighbours when they told her to go and fetch some water. She obeyed, drawing up the water, and then drank a cup of water before taking it to the person who had asked for it. One of the women refused to drink from it, because she maintained that Asia had rendered the water “unclean”. Asia Bibi defended herself, saying that she did not think that the Prophet Muhammad would agree. To which the woman replied that she had just committed a blasphemy! The consequence was prison, her family forced to flee on account of threats by fundamentalists, and sentence of death by hanging… It was a judicial saga that only reached its final, happy conclusion in 2019. There is absolutely no anger in her when she recalls this devastating time of trial in her life, only sadness and weariness.

She is not the only “Asia Bibi”

But Asia also knows that she is by no means the only person to have been placed in this situation, and she wants to use the microphone that is held out to her to speak out on behalf of those who are still suffering from accusations of blasphemy in her home country. She becomes more animated as she speaks, and her previously quiet voice becomes more confident and assured: “Throughout my imprisonment I held the hand of Christ. It is thanks to him that I managed to stay strong. So don’t be afraid!” Seeing this new force and conviction, one can certainly see the strength of this woman who has remained undefeated after ten years of terrible trials. This is the woman who stubbornly refused to leave her family or deny her faith, as she was asked to do after her arrest, in order to escape a conviction.

Nevertheless, she has been forced to leave her country. Yet she still retains the hope of being able to return there one day. “It is the country of my birth, I love Pakistan with all my heart!”, she insists. Meanwhile, she hopes to be able to seek refuge in France. “I’ve met with a great deal of love here, and I think I will be happy with you”, she says.

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