THE MAN WHO IS SHELTERING HER FAMILY TELLS ACN: “IN THE LAST FEW DAYS THE ISLAMISTS HAVE SHOT AT THE GATEWAY OUTSIDE OUR HOUSE. WE HOPE TO BE ABLE TO FIND A PLACE OF SECURITY SOON, PERHAPS EVEN IN ROME FOR CHRISTMAS.”
“We are afraid. In the last few days they have shot at the gate outside the house where we were living. We face constant threats, and more than once I have been followed.” Such is the frightening situation being endured by the daughters of Asia Bibi, as reported to ACN by Joseph Nadeem, the man who has been sheltering her family ever since this Christian woman was sentenced to death for blasphemy. Given that Asia and her husband are practically illiterate, it is Nadeem who has been helping them with legal support and accompanying her husband Asihiq and younger daughter Eisham in their travels abroad, giving testimony of their experiences.
Today Joseph Nadeem and his family are themselves in danger and living in hiding together with the daughters of Asia Bibi. “Just as soon as Asia was acquitted, we were forced to flee”, he recalls. “Asia and her husband are currently in a place of safety, protected by the government, but we could not remain with them”, he explains. Ever since then Joseph Nadeem and his family, together with the two daughters of Asia, have had to keep on the move, changing homes four times so far. “The Islamists keep hunting us down, and every time we find we are in danger, we have to move on immediately. We cannot go out openly to buy food. I only ever go out by night and with my face covered”, Joseph Nadeem tells ACN.
Asia is aware of their difficult situation. “I met her as soon as she was acquitted, and every day we speak on the telephone together. She is very concerned for the safety of her daughters.” The two girls, Esha and Eisham, have not even have the chance to embrace their mother since her acquittal, but finally, even if only by telephone, they have been able to spend a few minutes talking to her daily. “I will never forget their first telephone call”, Joseph recalls. “Esha and Eisham wept for hours for sheer joy and relief. Asia cannot wait to see them again, and I am still hoping we can all leave the country very soon, together with Asia and her husband.”
Nevertheless, their nightmare is still far from over. Asia Bibi has shown extraordinary strength and courage. “She is a remarkable woman! She has retained an unshakeable faith and infinite trust in the Lord. It may sound strange, but it is she who has supported us in these difficult moments. She urges us not to get discouraged and tells us that in comparison with what she has been through so far, this is only a brief moment that will pass.”
Nadeem and the two girls are well aware of the flood of information and interest that her mother’s case has aroused around the world, and they have been able to talk to Asia herself about it. “The international attention and solidarity are a source of comfort for us. Eisham was profoundly moved when she saw her video message projected on the buildings of Venice, illuminated in red light. All of us, Asia included, are grateful to all those who have raised their voices in protest about our situation.”
“We are hoping to be able to leave Pakistan soon and live in a safe place. ACN was the first organisation to offer us hospitality. And we are hoping that our two families will be able to spend this Christmas in Rome, together with you all.”
Pakistan has a population of more than 200 million people among those, more than 95% are Muslims, which makes the country the second biggest Islamic state in the world. The 1973 constitution states that all citizens enjoy the freedom to practice and profess freely the religion of their choice. However, this right to religious freedom is considerably limited.
By Eva-Maria Kolmann
In 1968, the so-called blasphemy law was enacted in Pakistan. By principle, the law protects all religions from offenses, but it provides for severe and draconian punishments to offenses and blasphemies against Islam: the desecration of the Koran is punishable by life imprisonment and an insult to the prophet Muhammad, with a death penalty. A simple suspicion or a statement would be enough to imprison a person and the burden of proof is borne by the accused, who is the one who must prove his innocence. In addition, the accuser will never repeat what the accused has allegedly said against the Qur’an or Islam because then he or she would also commit blasphemy. This makes it difficult to obtain sustainable proof and the problem is also that the allegations can be invented.
The blasphemy law in Pakistan
Furthermore, the Pakistani law of blasphemy does not provide for any distinction between voluntary and involuntary acts, which means that even a child or an illiterate person could be punished. For instance, if a child or an illiterate person would throw out an old newspaper that contained a verse of the Qur’an or if a mentally handicapped person would claim to be the prophet, Muhammed, they would be subject to the same punishment as someone that would deliberately insult the Qur’an and the prophet, according to what the law establishes.
The blasphemy law in Pakistan
So far no death penalty has been executed, but even when the accused is acquitted, usually after a long trial, it does not mean that the person is absolved by the community. When someone accused of blasphemy is released it is not safe for him or her anymore. There have been reported cases in which extremists take justice into their own hands. Between 1986 and 2010, 34 persons were lynched, among those more than half were not Muslim. A priest from Pakistan explains: “blasphemy is taken very seriously, meaning that it can cause a general commotion. It is like in the Middle Ages. When someone is accused of blasphemy, people are enraged; extremists assume that all the accused should be considered guilty and subject to punishment accordingly. Very often the burden of the verdict falls also on the judges. If a judge comes to the conclusion that a defendant is innocent it means that the accuser has lied. The judge might also be considered a bad Muslim for accusing a fellow Muslim of a lie. Some judges might be threatened, others might be even killed.” The priest points out that it would be very unlikely that they would repeal the law as it is a highly sensitive matter.
Oftentimes the pressure of foreigner countries can do more harm than good. When extremists get the attention they put even more pressure on the accused to receive the highest penalty possible. Pope Benedict XVI, on January 10, 2011, made a statement in favor of the repeal of the blasphemy law in Pakistan. The outcome was a riot inside the country. Muslim was very offended and they acted to further defend the honor of Islam and the Prophet.
From the book “Pakistán: cristianos en el país de los talibanes”.
“Help us get out of Pakistan, we no longer have even anything to eat”
“I appeal to the Italian Government to help my family and me get out of Pakistan”. This is the dramatic plea which Ashiq Masih, Asia Bibi’s husband, made by phone to Aid to the Church in Need. While his wife remains in jail waiting for her acquittal, the family lives in fear. The protests of fundamentalists who continue to demand her execution have forced Asia Bibi’s relatives to confine themselves to a safe place in the house. In the past few days, Saif ul-Malook, the lawyer defending Asia Bibi, has been forced to leave the country.
“We are extremely worried because our lives are in danger,” Asia Bibi’s husband told ACN. “We no longer have even anything to eat, because we can not leave the house to buy food.” For this reason Ashiq asks the Italian government to grant them asylum and above all to help them leave the country. At the same time he invites the media and the international community to continue to keep a spotlight on his wife’s plight. “For it is precisely this attention that has kept Asia alive to date. I thank Aid to the Church in Need in particular for giving us the opportunity to speak to the world through the invitation to attend the “Red Colosseum” (Rome 24th of February 2018 ACN Event – Illuminated Coliseum in red).
Asia daughter says “I can’t wait to hug my mother”
Asia Bibi’s husband and daughter have today described news of her acquittal as the “most wonderful moment” of their lives – and thanked God for answering their prayers. Pakistan’s Supreme Court this morning (Wednesday, 31st October) overturned the death sentence hanging over the Catholic labourer from Punjab who in 2010 became the first woman in the country condemned to death for blasphemy.
Speaking within a few minutes of the announcement today, Asia Bibi’s daughter, Eisham Ashiq, 18, told Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need: “I am so happy. I want to thank God.
And, speaking through an interpreter, she told the charity for persecuted Christians: “This is the most wonderful moment. I can’t wait to hug my mother and then celebrate with my family. I am grateful to God for listening to our prayers.”
Asia Bibi’s husband, Ashiq Masih, said: “We are very happy. This is wonderful news.
“We thank God very much that he’s heard our prayers – and the prayers of so many people who have longed for Asia Bibi’s release over all these years of suffering and anguish.”
Close family friend Joseph Nadeem said that on hearing the news the family immediately “danced for joy”. He added: “There were many tears – tears of indescribable joy.”
Neville Kyrke-Smith, National Director of Aid to the Church in Need (UK), said: “Today is like the dawn of new hope for oppressed minorities.”
Saluting the courage of the judges in acquitting Asia Bibi in the face of fierce opposition from Islamist protestors, he added: “It is important that justice is not just seen to be done but is done.”
And Father Emmanuel Yousaf, National Director of Pakistan’s Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, which supports people accused of blasphemy with support from organisations including ACN, said: “I am glad that justice has finally been served.
“In the current developing situation and protests by extremist groups, May Our Lord bless and protect Asia and her family and keep all our Christian brothers and sisters safe here in Pakistan.”
The Supreme Court’s decision today overturns the 2010 sentence Asia Bibi received for insulting the Muslim Prophet Mohammed, a crime punishable by death according to Article 295C of Pakistan’s Penal code – part of the so-called Blasphemy Laws.
The charge was brought against her following an altercation with Muslim co-workers who said that, as a Christian, she had contaminated a common water cup by drinking from it.
Throughout, Asia Bibi has protested her innocence and on 8th October the case had its final hearing at Pakistan’s Supreme Court in the capital, Islamabad.
At the time of the hearing, Asia’s daughter, Eisham, and husband, Ashiq, were in the UK as guests of Aid to the Church in Need, raising awareness of the case.
Ashiq Masih, husband of Asia Bibi, and Eisham Ashiq, the oldest daughter of the couple, gave an interview to ACN. “This situation is terrible for me as her spouse and for our children. We are here to testify on behalf of Asia Bibi, who is being held a prisoner for nine years after being wrongly accused of having blasphemed against the Muslim Prophet Muhammed” said Masih. “She didn’t do anything wrong. She was on the garden talking to these Muslim neighbors of ours and then five days later police came and she was taken in custody. The whole thing was an abuse of power. Only afterward we became aware of what had happened” he adds. Eisham was nine when she witnessed her mother being arrested.