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Asia Bibi freed, conviction overturned

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (BP) — Christian mother Asia Bibi was released from Pakistan’s death row today (Oct. 31) after the nation’s Supreme Court reversed her 2010 conviction of blasphemy.

Religious liberty advocates globally expressed jubilation and pleas that Pakistan’s military protect Bibi. Meanwhile, Muslim extremists reportedly began burning tires in the streets. Pakistan issued a heightened security alert hours in advance of the announcement, said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice.

“There are security precautions I’m sure being taken in Pakistan,” Sekulow said in a Facebook video before daybreak. “It’s a complete victory. She’s been in jail for almost nine years. But she now will be returned to her family.”

Renewed death threats against the court, other leaders and Bibi should be taken seriously, advocates say. The entire Christian community is considered in danger in the nation that is more than 96 percent Muslim.

“The danger for this Christian mother of five is not over,” the ACLJ said in its press release. “Rangers were deployed around the court and other parts of the capital.”

Her current location has not been disclosed. At least two countries have offered her asylum, CNN reported. Government protection is critical to Bibi’s safety, ACLJ representative Shaheryar Gill told Baptist Press a week ago.

“She cannot be released openly,” Gill said Oct. 23. “If she is, there’s no doubt, no question about it, that her life will be in jeopardy. They feel proud of killing somebody like this.”

Two government leaders who advocated for Bibi’s release during her eight-year ordeal were murdered in 2011, namely cabinet member Shabbaz Bhatti and Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer.

More than 50 people accused of blasphemy have been killed by angry mobs and others in Pakistan.

Bibi’s case illustrates the inhumanity of blasphemy laws, which allow the death penalty for convictions in Pakistan, said Tenzin Dorjee, chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

“The case of Asia Bibi illustrates the extent to which blasphemy laws can be exploited to target minority communities,” Dorjee said in a press release. “These laws seek to protect entire religions rather than the individual, as should be the case under international human rights standards.

“It is deeply troubling that Bibi’s case even reached this level,” Dorjee said, “where she almost became the first person in Pakistan’s history to be executed for the crime of blasphemy.”

Bibi was sentenced to death by hanging in 2010 on charges of insulting the prophet Mohammad while working in a field as a day laborer in 2009. When Bibi offered a coworker a cup of water, the woman said Bibi’s Christianity made the water ceremonially unclean. This set off a chain of false accusations related to Bibi’s beliefs and backed by Muslim clerics. Bibi refused to convert to Islam and was accused of insulting the prophet Muhammad.

Pakistani Christian leaders are urging Christians there to pray and “offer themselves to public service” as Bibi is released, advocacy group Open Doors USA has learned.

“Let us be compassionate to those who mourn and suffer at this time, and let us be prepared with our resources to serve this nation [Pakistan] at a time when a blood bath could easily occur,” Christian leaders are pleading, Open Doors said in a press release today. “Be willing to become a public care servant, to demonstrate God’s desire for justice, mercy and humility. If you are a Pakistani and have medical skills or social work skills, be willing to use them. Be watchful, vigilant and calm.”

Don’t “make any comments that could be used against you,” Pakistani Christians are urged.

“These [hardline Islamic] groups are on high alert and will be watching for any way to increase the pressure against Aasiya [Asia Bibi], Christians and the Church,” Christian leaders there told believers. “Let us strive to demonstrate restraint, [as] no use of aggression or physical violence can make up for our loss as a nation and a community….As a praying people, let us trust God and ensure that we demonstrate Him and His Good News at this time.”

More than 40 people convicted of blasphemy are currently on death row or serving life sentences in Pakistan, the ACLJ has said. Hundreds are serving or have served prison terms ranging from three years to 10 years.

Blasphemy laws criminalize fundamental human rights including freedom of speech and religion, Alliance Defending Freedom International (ADF) said.

“Blasphemy laws directly violate international law. All people have the right to freely choose, and live out, their faith,” said Kelsey Zorzi, ADF director of advocacy for global religious freedom. “We therefore urge all governments to uphold this right by ceasing enforcement and initiating repeal of their blasphemy laws.”

Since 1986 when Pakistan updated its blasphemy laws, at least 150 Christians, 564 Muslims, 459 Ahmadis and 21 Hindus have been jailed on blasphemy charges, according to Open Doors.