Sister Christian | Sarah Stook
There are several places where being a minority isn’t so much fun. Being a woman in Yemen is not ideal, being a Shia Muslim isn’t great and being gay isn’t so awesome in Uganda. Pakistan isn’t known for its love of minorities, but being Christian in such a deeply Islamic country is one of the worst things that you could be if you value your life.
Asia Bibi can tell you that.
Her name has become synonymous with religious intolerance, blasphemy and a nation divided. A quick look on the right places of the internet and Twitter can tell you her story, but it’s not something that the main stream media has particularly picked up on. For all its virtue signalling, we haven’t seen much from the Prime Minister or Foreign Secretary. Alone in a prison cell waiting for a probable death, Bibi relies on NGOs, civil rights groups and concerned citizens to tell her story.
The version of events on the fateful 2009 are a little murky but there are a few certain facts. Bibi, a mother of five and member of the only Christian family in her eastern Pakistani village, was working with other women when told to fetch some water from a well. Doing as she was told, Bibi also stopped to drink from a cup. Spotted by a neighbour, she was yelled at for drinking from using the same utensils because she is ‘unclean,’ and also for not allowing her Muslim colleagues to drink from it first. An argument ensued. Bibi reported that she stated that Jesus Christ died for her sins and asked what the Prophet had done for them after her religion was attacked. Those present dispute this and say that she actually insulted Islam, something later reported to a cleric. She and her family were beaten by a mob before the police came, rescuing her but also arresting her. Languishing in prison without a trial for a year (the Pakistani judicial system is notoriously slow and corrupt); she was finally given the death penalty even without a confession and no solid evidence. The investigator, the famed Governor Taseer, was assassinated due to his support for her release. At the time of writing, she is in the middle of one of many appeals and a verdict looks imminent. If she loses the appeal she’s executed. If she wins and is released, she is very likely to be murdered by Islamist militants or even normal citizens. All because she is a Christian, most likely targeted due to her religion and as a result of extremely backward blasphemy laws.
What I ask is: where is the support for Ms. Bibi?
When there is an issue within a community, that community often comes together. We are yet to see such collective support from many- whether Christians, heads of states, feminists or those in favour of free speech. Whilst the Pope received her family (they had escaped from Pakistan) and sent her a rosary, we have not seen him use his very powerful influence to call for her freedom, except for calling her a ‘martyr.’ That is all and all not too comforting for Bibi. Though one imagines many individual Christians have prayed for her release- the highest form of support in their eyes, we are yet to see any action from individuals more powerful than they.
Take for example our current government. Theresa May is the deeply religious daughter of a Vicar, the elected leader of a Christian country which founded its own church but still has deep connections with the Catholic church. Focusing instead on banning large pizzas and porn, May has not decided to pick up the phone to the Pakistani ambassador or new PM Imran Khan. We are usually very generous with our foreign aid towards the country, even when they pull stunts like this. As a country, it has often tested us. During the plan to kill Osama Bin Laden, the decision was made not to consult Pakistan as they were believed to be, according to then-CIA chief Leon Panetta ‘either involved or incompetent.’ Yet, we still willingly spend money on them that tends to go to the elites. Whilst we may not be a deeply religious place, we should not be spending money on a country that persecutes minorities, especially minorities who share religious values with many in our land. Even if that isn’t possible- and it probably isn’t due to our over generosity with overseas aid- May should use her power to speak out against Bibi’s treatment and ensure that if she is released, she is allowed to seek refuge without fear of murder.
Penny Mordaunt, International Development Secretary, would be a perfect figure for this as a woman and as someone who usually has more common sense than most of her colleagues. The one we should expect the most from is our Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt. He has rightly used his new position to fight against the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims and Syrian people, but not for Bibi. It is not only our duty as a Christian nation, but one that does not jail people for drinking out of a cup and apparently blaspheming, a nation that prides itself on liberation and the freedom of people. This is not a case of getting into another sovereign nation’s internal affairs; this is speaking out for a person who has been robbed of her rights and been put through a very shoddy judicial system. Online you will find many Christian organisations doing their best to defend Bibi, but what have we seen from the Archbishop of Canterbury?
As said earlier, the Pope called Asia Bibi a martyr. The official definition of martyr is someone who is killed or has died for a cause, mainly religious but sometimes political. Though we can understand the Pope believes Asia will ascend to a better place if executed, it is not of much comfort to Bibi, her husband or any of her loved ones. Instead of sending her rosaries, the Pope could put pressure on Pakistan to release her. Several countries have offered her family asylum, which Bibi could most likely take if her appeal is successful. President Trump, PM May and many others have the ability to influence change but have not done this. Sure, they have many other priorities but they can take ten minutes for a phone call or to send out a strong statement of support from Bibi. As not only a Christian nation, but a liberal democracy, it is extremely important that we defend the rights of those who have said rights violated. This is not just a provocation against one person, but every minority in Pakistan and around the world. Just one BBC article or Sky News broadcast can change things by spreading awareness, but we are yet to see is.
For Christians and other kind religious folk, there is prayer, but for all world leaders, there is opportunity for change. For Asia Bibi, there is almost certain death.