Asia Bibi’s family are anxiously anticipating the Supreme Court’s verdict
Asia Bibi has been on death row for eight years. While she has remained in solitary confinement, her five children have grown up. Two have married and had children of their own. Now it seems as if her ordeal – which began when a colleague accused her of insulting Mohammad – might be about to end. Pakistan’s Supreme Court heard her appeal last week after a three-year delay. It announced it had made a judgment, but that it would not be disclosed immediately “for reasons to be recorded later”.
This has raised hopes among Asia’s supporters – and angered Islamists. Protests have taken place across the country, with marchers chanting “Hang infidel Asia”. Leaders of an influential political party, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), have posted a video on YouTube threatening the judges with a “horrible end” if they uphold her appeal.
As it happens, Asia’s husband, Ashiq Masih, and Eisham, her 18-year-old daughter, were in Britain when the news broke. Guests of Aid to the Church in Need, they have been whisked across the country, giving interviews and telling their story in parishes.
If Asia is freed, they hope to flee to one of the many countries that have offered them refuge. Asia is so hated that she would not survive for very long were she to remain. Even now, the family cannot move freely in Pakistan, and live in fear of attacks from hardliners. (Two figures who publicly supported Asia’s cause – Shahbaz Bhatti and Salman Taseer – were assassinated in 2011.)
I met Ashiq and Eisham outside Westminster Cathedral and spoke to them via an interpreter, Joseph Nadeem, who is also a family friend. He said Asia’s imprisonment had been particularly painful for Eisham and for her younger sister, Esha. Their visits to the prison have been limited to 20 or 25 minutes, with a soldier writing down everything they say. They cannot hug or kiss Asia properly, he said, because of the prison bars between them. Nevertheless, he said, Asia “boosts the faith of her family” during these visits, encouraging them to “be strong” and reminding them: “I’m in the hands of Jesus Christ.”
In 2009, Eisham, then nine, saw her mother being beaten by a mob in the aftermath of the blasphemy accusation. At the time they were one of only three Christian families in a village of 600 or so. All these families fled.
Fr Emmanuel Yousaf, director of the bishops’ justice and peace commission, who is accompanying father and daughter on their trip, said many Pakistani Christians have gone into hiding after similar incidents. Islamist fanaticism, he explained, is pushing Christians out of the villages to the relative safety of large cities. His hope is that more widespread primary education and more job opportunities will help end the “madness”.
Eisham and Ashiq each have the same request: please keep praying for Asia Bibi. “With your prayers,” said Ashiq, “the Lord Almighty will open the door for her freedom.”