Several countries have offered asylum to the Pakistani Christian woman Asia Bibi, after she was acquitted by the country’s highest court last month of a blasphemy charge carrying the capital punishment. However, local Christians are fearful of repercussions, as the West is perceived as Christian to most Pakistanis.
There were violent protests when the Supreme Court of Pakistan announced its verdict on 31 October, with protesters demanding Asia be hanged and not allowed to travel abroad, though no significant act against Christians took place during these protests.
Asia was released from prison a few days later but the government strongly denied that she had been flown out of the country. Her lawyer, Saif-ul-Malooq, flew to the Netherlands on 3 November and was offered asylum, after which the Dutch embassy in Pakistan received threats and had to close down its operations.
Yesterday, Pakistan’s The News International reported that the president of the European Parliament had telephoned Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, specifically to discuss Asia Bibi. The UK, meanwhile, was reported by the Guardian newspaper to have refused the request for asylum of Asia Bibi’s husband, Ashiq Masih, “out of fear for the safety of UK consular staff”. Seventy UK parliamentarians responded by writing to the British prime minister, Theresa May, urging her to offer asylum to Asia and her family.
Over 230 Parliamentarians globally have petitioned Imran Khan not to give in to pressure for a review of her acquittal, saying they are “aware that a review could take years, leaving Asia incarcerated for that time or vulnerable to mob violence if released”. They also questioned “whether political interests will prevail” and pointed out that “nations will be less likely to invest in Pakistan if the rule of law is undermined”.
In this entire situation, although a tense calm has prevailed in Pakistan, Christians are apprehensive that the eventual upshot could be a more discriminatory attitude towards Christians in general.
Minority rights activist Romana Bashir told World Watch Monitor that “Christians have a sense of fear that after Asia’s acquittal they might suffer.”
“Christians are disproportionately accused of blasphemy, as data collected by several non-government organisations has shown,” she added.
As World Watch Monitor has reported, Pakistani Christians make up only around 1.5 per cent of the total population, but over a quarter (187) of the 702 blasphemy cases registered between 1990 and 2014 were against Christians.
Bashir also pointed out the discrimination Christians face in terms of keeping them in low-level jobs. Recent figures revealed that Christians dominate the sewerage and sanitary-work industries, due to the prevailing pre-partition Hindu caste system of the “untouchables” doing society’s “dirty work” – something that was at the root of Asia Bibi’s plight.
“It is in these areas we may continue to face discrimination,” Bashir said, “and such incidents only fuel more hatred.”
Bashir has been an advisor to the Vatican for the Commission for Religious Relations with Muslims since 2012. She said the situation remains under control in Pakistan, though only the mention of Asia Bibi’s name is enough for tensions to rise once again.