Theresa May’s reported refusal to offer asylum to Asia Bibi in Britain has earned her well-deserved criticism. The case is a straightforward one of offering refuge to a victim of persecution who, despite her acquittal on transparently false blasphemy charges in Pakistan, would certainly be killed by a fanatical mob should she emerge from hiding.
So why then would the Prime Minister refuse to offer asylum? There can only be three reasons.
First, that May calculates that admitting Bibi would anger British Muslims and so there would be a political price to pay. Second, that May fears disruptions – protests, perhaps violent ones – if Bibi were to be admitted, analogous to the demonstrations that greeted her acquittal in Pakistan. Third, that May sincerely believes that Britain is too dangerous a place for a Christian who is a target of fanatical Islamist forces; Britain should not offer asylum because Britain is not actually a refuge.
While none of the three options reflects well upon Britain, it is a broader aspect of the case as a whole that caught my attention. The Asia Bibi story in Pakistan is one about a Christian running afoul of Islamist persecution and fanaticism, namely, that she is in potential danger from mob violence, and political leaders are cowed by the threat of violence in the streets. The Asia Bibi story in Britain is about a Christian in potential danger from mob violence, and political leaders are cowed by the threat of violence in the streets.
It’s the same story in both places. And that’s because the reality of religion in the Global South is increasingly the reality of religion in the Global North. Mass immigration has brought the South, for good and ill, to the North.
That gets widespread attention when, as in the Bibi case, the pathologies of some extremist corners of the Islamic world make their way north, like the paedophile gangs of mainly British-Pakistani men in northern England or the New Year’s Eve sexual assaults in Cologne. But it is also the story of how the Catholic Church is changing in the Global North in general, quite apart from issues of Islamist violence or sexual abuse.
When we look at the vibrancy of the faith in a particular country in the North, the key factor is the degree to which the Global South is present. The reason that the Church of England is nearly dead is that an insufficient number of immigrants in England wish to worship as Anglicans. Absent immigration from Africa, India and the Philippines, the Catholic Church in England would be in similar shape.
Consider Scotland. If the health of Christianity in Scotland depended only upon native Scots, both the Presbyterians and the Catholics would be dire shape. Not that the Catholics are thriving on all fronts, but a substantial influx of Catholics from Poland has made a significant difference.
In Canada, it is even more clear. Where the Catholic population is still comprised largely of historic Irish and French communities, the faith is as anaemic as one finds in Ireland or France. Contrariwise, where there is significant Catholic immigration from India, Africa and the Philippines, parishes are bursting at the seams. Parts of the country where there is no significant immigration – Atlantic Canada, rural Canada, most of Quebec outside of Montreal – will see the Catholic presence effectively dead within this generation. Indeed, it is already the case that otherwise dead dioceses are being kept on life support by foreign priests.
For quite some time now it has been remarked that the future of the Catholic Church is in the Global South. That is already true in terms of sheer population, and it is increasingly true in terms of influence. But that is only part of the story. The full story recognises that the Global North is already dominated by the Global South. There is no English or Scottish or Canadian Church apart from those from the Global South who have moved North.
It’s certainly true that justice demands that Britain offer Asia Bibi asylum. But she would be better off elsewhere. Moving from Pakistan proper to the Pakistani diaspora may not be a wise decision.
Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of convivium.ca