Who rules Pakistan? That is an open question following the acquittal of Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five who faced the death penalty on blasphemy charges. In a keenly awaited judgment, the Supreme Court of Pakistan ruled last week that there was insufficient evidence to convict Bibi of blaspheming against Islam during a dispute with fellow farm workers in June 2009. Most foreign observers – and many Pakistanis – concluded long ago that Bibi was innocent. After holding her unjustly on death row for more than eight years, Pakistan’s legal system has come to a decision.
If the rule of law were respected in Pakistan, then Bibi would be free to walk out of jail and into the arms of her family and supporters. Sadly, it isn’t. The authorities know that there are countless people who are convinced of Bibi’s guilt and would regard it not only as a duty but also an honour to kill her. Protests engulfed Pakistan after the ruling. Writing in the New York Times, the novelist Mohammed Hanif captured the frenzied atmosphere:
Posters were put up with fatwas against the judges who had issued the Bibi decision. The judges’ guards and cooks were urged to kill them before evening; anyone who did would earn great rewards in the afterlife. Pakistani conservatives, emboldened by gains in the general election this summer, goaded the generals into rebelling against the army chief, whom they accused of being an Ahmadi, a persecuted religious minority. They called Prime Minister Imran Khan a “Jew child”.
Saif-ul-Malook, Bibi’s lawyer and one of the bravest men in Pakistan, was forced to flee the country, at least temporarily. Christian schools in Lahore were closed indefinitely for pupils’ safety. Protesters blocked Islamabad’s main highway, threatening to bring the nation’s tottering economy to its knees.
The government did what all weak authorities do when confronted by the mob: it panicked. Officials requested that Bibi be placed on the Exit Control List (ECL), barring her from leaving the country, until the Supreme Court makes a “final review” of its verdict. “Placing Asia Bibi on the ECL is like signing her death warrant,” lamented Wilson Chowdhry, chairman of the British Pakistani Christian Association. The concession was enough to make the mobs disperse after three days of protests.
When Bibi received news of her acquittal, she was reportedly reading the Bible. She expressed disbelief at the verdict and asked: “Will they let me out, really?” The answer, it seems, is no. Bibi is officially free, but is unable to leave her prison cell.
Other Christians are likely to suffer similar fates to Bibi’s in the coming years. Those seeking to settle personal scores against minorities can simply accuse them of blasphemy. The accused are often murdered by enraged mobs or, if they are lucky, arrested and held for years in legal limbo. There were around a dozen blasphemy cases between 1927 and 1986, when the laws were tightened. Since then, there have been more than a thousand cases.
The state knows the law is being abused, but it is powerless to change it. Hardliners have convinced many that even the slightest alteration to the blasphemy code would betray the Islamic Republic. Pakistanis who support the Supreme Court ruling are too afraid to make their opinions known, let alone take to the streets. The judgment was a praiseworthy act. But it has inadvertently galvanised the forces of intolerance.
Last week, the President of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, visited Istanbul and signed an accord with Patriarch Bartholomew paving the way for the recognition of a Ukrainian Orthodox Church, independent of the Moscow Patriarchate. Needless to say, Patriarch Kirill, who claims jurisdiction over the only canonical Orthodox Church in Ukraine, is not pleased, given that the Moscow patriarchate stands to lose a substantial proportion of its parishes. Curious to Western eyes is the role played in all this by the Ukrainian president, whose request to the Patriarch of Constantinople to recognise a new national church for Ukraine has proved decisive in bringing this about.
The Russians see the new church as a political project, and in this they are right. It is another assertion of Ukrainian independence from Russia. They might care to reflect that the Russian Orthodox Church itself hastened this by its strong support for President Putin, whom many Ukrainians see as an aggressor. But politics aside, it’s hardly surprising that Ukrainians want an autocephalous Orthodox Church, with its own patriarch, just like the Bulgarians, the Serbs, the Georgians and many other nations.
The emerging Church, like the government that has brought about its birth, will, one assumes, be Western-looking and open to dialogue with the wider world, including Catholics. The new church is unlikely to share Moscow’s antipathy to towards the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. Let’s pray there will be fruitful ecumenical opportunities in this new configuration.