Pakistani Christians have announced a day of fasting and prayer on Monday as Asia Bibi, the Christian woman who has spent the last nine years on death row for alleged blasphemy, makes a final court appeal.
The British Pakistani Christian Association (BPCA) has written directly to Imran Khan, prime minister of Pakistan, and to President Arif Alvi, asking for Ms Bibi to be released.
Asia Bibi’s “crime” was to drink water from a supply used by Muslims. As a farm worker, she was in the fields alongside Muslim women when she took a drink of water. They objected because she was an “unclean” Christian. Beaten by an angry mob, she was rescued by police, but a few days later she was accused by a local imam, who had not been present at the incident, of insulting Muhammad. She was sentenced to death under Pakistan’s stringent blasphemy laws a year later.
Ms Bibi’s husband Ashiq Masih has been visiting England with the couple’s daughter Eisham Ashiq, who at the age of nine witnessed her mother being beaten, with support from the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.
Interviewed at St Columba’s Church in Chester last week, Mr Ashiq said that when they visited his wife in prison on October 1 she was in good health, and received Communion.
“She is psychologically, physically and spiritually strong,” he said. “Having a very strong faith, she is ready and willing to die for Christ. She will never convert to Islam.
“She also wanted to deliver a message to the international community that they must remember her in their prayers. These prayers will open the door of the prison, and she will be released very soon,” he continued.
“She is spending her life praying with a very strong faith and is reading the Bible every day. She feels when she is praying, Jesus is encouraging and supporting her.”
If today’s appeal is successful, BPCA are asking the Pakistani authorities that Ms Bibi be allowed to leave Pakistan immediately for her safety. Militant Muslims have offered 500,000 rupees (around £5,000) for her murder.
In the years that she has been in prison, two prominent advocates for her release have been killed. In 2011 the governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, was assassinated after saying he would fight for her release, and Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, was killed after he said he would seek the reform of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which are often used as a weapon in personal disputes between Muslims and Christians.
In 2010 Pope Benedict XVI called for Ms Bibi’s release, and in February this year Pope Francis met Mr Ashiq and their daughter Eisham at the Vatican.
“The Pope encouraged us and said to us, ‘Don’t led your mind be disturbed’, and said ‘Pass on my encouragement to Asia Bibi and bless her as well,’” said Mr Ashiq.
“By meeting him, our faith was boosted,” he said. “We were already believing and have a strong faith, but listening to him really encouraged us.”