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‘Ten million people now want to kill me’

Asia Bibi became the most reviled figure in Pakistan when she was falsely accused of blasphemy three years ago, says Hal St John

By on Thursday, 14 June 2012

Three daughters of Asia Bibi hold a photo of their mother outside their home in the Punjab  (CNS photo)

Three daughters of Asia Bibi hold a photo of their mother outside their home in the Punjab (CNS photo)

“At that moment, I was hit in the face. My nose is hurting. I am bleeding. I am half stunned. They pull me as though I were a stubborn donkey. I can do nothing other than suffer and pray that it stops. I look at the crowd, which seems to triumph at my feeble resistance. I stagger. The blows fall on to my legs, on to my back, behind my head…

“‘Do you want to convert, to belong to a religion worthy of the name?’

“‘No, please, I am a Christian. I beg you…’

“And with the same fury, they continue to beat me. One arm is really hurting. I think it may be broken. ‘Death to the Christian!’ the angry mob scream.”

This is how, in a newly translated memoir, Asia Bibi describes the day of her arrest, June 14 2009. An illiterate Catholic farm worker from a remote Punjabi village, she had been harvesting berries on the estate of a wealthy landowner with her co-workers in 45 degrees heat. Parched, she drew water from the estate well, dipped her cup into the bucket and gratefully drank big mouthfuls. No sooner had the cup left her lips than one of the farm hands, “her eyes filled with hatred”, screamed out “Haraam!”, a term meaning “forbidden” in Islamic law. To the other workers, stirred by the commotion, she screamed: “This Christian has defiled the water from the well by drinking from our cup and by repeatedly plunging it into the well. The water is now impure. We can no longer drink it because of her.”

Arrested under Section 295c of the Pakistan Penal Code, which forbids blasphemy against Mohammed, Bibi, a mother of five, was imprisoned for 18 months pending a trial. In November 2010 Muhammed Iqbal, a judge at the court of Sheikhupura, sentenced her to death by hanging, to the delight of a cheering crowd. Bibi describes the moment like this:

“I cried alone, putting my head in my hands. I can no longer bear the sight of people full of hatred, applauding the killing of a poor farm worker. I no longer see them, but I still hear them, the crowd who gave the judge a standing ovation, saying: ‘Kill her, kill her! Allahu akbar!’ The court house is invaded by a euphoric horde who break down the doors, chanting: ‘Vengeance for the holy prophet. Allah is great!’ I was then thrown like an old rubbish sack into the van… I had lost all humanity in their eyes.” Three years after her arrest, Bibi still languishes in an isolated wing of Sheikhupura prison awaiting her appeal against Judge Iqbal’s decision. She is under 24-hour surveillance to protect her from other prisoners and jailers tempted to collect the £4,000 reward offered by a local Muslim leader to anyone who kills her. The reward is not just monetary. The assassin of Salman Taseer, the Pakistani politician murdered on January 4 2011 in Islamabad because of his public support of Bibi, is a national hero.

Far beyond the borders of her native Pakistan, Bibi’s story has become an emblem of religious persecution and the quest for religious freedom. Shortly after Bibi was condemned to death by hanging in November 2010, Pope Benedict spoke of his spiritual closeness to her in his weekly audience and called for her release. This was a wake-up call to western governments and media, whose silence over the mass persecution of Christians worldwide adds up to a glaring moral blind spot. Too foreign for those on the Right, too Christian for those on the Left, those hounded and killed for their faith go largely unnoticed. Bibi’s own story, taken down by a French journalist with access to her in jail, has not yet been published in English.

Legal and cultural structures that discriminate against individual religious freedom, like Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, effectively sanction wanton acts of violence against religious minorities.

“After the newspaper reports,” writes Bibi, “10 million Pakistanis are ready to kill me by their own hands.” In Pakistan, she says, Christians are like orphans in their own land. On paper, they have the same rights as everyone else. In practice, they do their best not to draw the attention of the rest of society. At home, she says, there is no cross or icon of the Holy Virgin – only a small Bible hidden under the mattress.

More than 80 per cent of acts of discrimination and violence against minority groups, which are growing in a number of places around the world, are directed against Christians. The 2011 Pew Forum study estimated that Christians were persecuted, either by government or hostile social forces, in 130 of the world’s 193 countries. Of the countries cited in the 2012 report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom for the systematic violation of religious liberty, Christians are the one group persecuted in all 16 , which include Pakistan, Iran and Syria.

The rise in religious intolerance is leading to a new generation of Christian martyrs, as Lord Alton recently highlighted in his Tyburn lecture. Just weeks after Taseer’s murder at the hands of his bodyguard, Shahbaz Bhatti, the Catholic Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs, was gunned down for his public criticism of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

A branch of the Taliban, who called him a blasphemer of Mohammed, claimed responsibility. Bibi described hearing the news of his murder in these words: “I felt that someone had squeezed my heart really hard, right inside my body. I was frozen in terror. My legs no longer held me. I collapsed on my bed, breathing heavily. I saw the walls of the prison crack then fall in on me.”

Bibi pleads with readers at the end of her autobiography: “Now that you know me, tell those around you what is happening. Let them know about it. I believe this is my only chance of not dying in the pit of this dungeon. I need you! Save me!”

There are many things we can do to answer her appeal, not least to tell her story, pray for her and ask our Government to make presentations to Pakistan. A rally outside the Pakistani Embassy in London on June 14, the third anniversary of her arrest, marked the moment and showed that she is not forgotten. My band, ooberfuse, has translated her autobiography to help us portray her situation in a short music video at Freeasiabibi.co.uk.

Somehow, by these acts, we bring the struggle for religious freedom, and Asia Bibi’s personal plight, closer to home.

Hal St John is a member of the band ooberfuse (ooberfuse.com, @ooberfuse)

  • TreenonPoet

    What is ‘religious freedom’? If it is the freedom to believe, then it is freedom of thought. If it is also the freedom to express one’s beliefs, then it is also freedom of expression. If it is freedom to act in accordance with one’s beliefs, then is that not what Bibi’s persecutors are exercising?

    There should be no such thing as ‘religious freedom’. The religious have no more fundamental rights than the non-religious.

    Causing harm does not become acceptable just because it is religiously motivated. That includes causing harm by religious indoctrination or by punishing someone for ‘blasphemy’ and related excuses. The Catholic Church actively prescribes such harm, and in doing so lends ‘moral’ support to similar actions motivated by other religions.

  • Proctor Kidwell

    I have been a Catholic for 54 years and I never learned harming people was a good thing. As for indoctrination… I would think a quasi-religion like islam indoctrinates more than any other. The Catholic church fought in the Crusades and maybe some of what they did was unchristian but they must have learned how to behave from their islamic brothers. I have not found since its forced acceptance that islam can in any area at any time in history unto today to be a peaceful and understanding, acceptable, etc religion. I would suspect if you study both the Christian Bible and the quaran you can come away with the same beliefs as I have… islam is the religion of satan. The proof is in the results. You know Christians by their love… what do you know  islamic people by? killing, war, forced conversion, etc. Since this is the case how can you say this is a good religion? As for God… the Christian God is all loving and gives free will to love and serve him. the muslim god gives what? Hate, lies, killings, inequality, honor killings, forced service no choice… Fear the man that can kill the spirit not the man that can kill your body. You body is only used in this life not in the next… Convert and repent. The road you go down leads to sheol…

  • TreenonPoet

     Until recently in history, the Catholic Church was known for killing, war, and forced conversion. There are plenty of signs that if it had the power it once had, it would revert. Religion is unfettered by rationalism. Belief in an after-life alone cheapens life on Earth.

  • http://twitter.com/LaCatholicState la catholic state

    Catholics are only allowed to kill in self-defense…..and we probably have the cleanest record of all peoples  Certainly secularists have enormous quantities blood on their hands…..even the blood of their own unborn offspring.  No room in Heaven for unrepentant pro-aborts but Heaven is filled with their victims.

  • http://twitter.com/LaCatholicState la catholic state

    If religious pay taxes then, we want our freedom.  Otherwise….don’t ask for our taxes.  And those who put their trust in anything other than Christ and His Catholic Church are going to be disappointed….for there is no such thing as Paradise on earth as secularists laughably think.  The future is going to hold some nasty shocks for declining secular nations.

  • JabbaPapa

    Your words are even more despicable than your usual average, as is your anti-religiously motivated intolerance and hatred.

    In a nutshell, you are justifying the evil being brought upon this poor innocent woman, condemned to hang for drinking a cup of water.

    It is *precisely* because those like you spout forth hatred and bigotry safe in their homes that people like those feel encouraged to turn hatred into murder.

  • http://twitter.com/LaCatholicState la catholic state

    I know this maybe ridiculous….but could Catholics organise some kind of rescue mission.  It’s at times like this that you know why the Crusaders were established.  It’s horrendous that all we can do is stand by and let an abominable injustice be carried out by the Pakistani Government against Asia.  If it was anybody else apart from a Christian…..there would be an international outcry.

  • Jannoelle

    STOP. This is about helping ASIA BIBI not a tit-for tat squabble. This poor women needs activists not squabblers to free her. Writ, text, email Politicians and other powerful persons to do their but in bringing freedom to ASIA and her family – even if it means someone has to take them into their home outside of Pakistan.

  • Jannoelle

    We need action and activists to pursue this matter with utter vigour and determination. 

  • TreenonPoet

     Your comprehension of what I wrote is even poorer than your usual average. Bibi is not condemned simply for drinking a cup of water; she is condemned because she is accused of violating some religious pseudo-law by drinking that cup. Can you really see nothing wrong with such a law? It is the unjust treatment that Bibi has been subjected to that I hate. There is nothing wrong with ‘spouting forth’ such justified hatred if it is intended to address the problem, and hopefully it will, in some small way, discourage, not encourage, religious lunacy.

  • TreenonPoet

     Your comprehension of what I wrote is even poorer than your usual average. Bibi is not condemned simply for drinking a cup of water; she is condemned because she is accused of violating some religious pseudo-law by drinking that cup. Can you really see nothing wrong with such a law? It is the unjust treatment that Bibi has been subjected to that I hate. There is nothing wrong with ‘spouting forth’ such justified hatred if it is intended to address the problem, and hopefully it will, in some small way, discourage, not encourage, religious lunacy.

  • TreenonPoet

     If you think that freedom to do harm can be bought, then you are out of date regarding the latest thinking on slavery. I know that the Bible condones slavery, but many people now see the Bible for what it is – a largely despicable work of fiction.

  • TreenonPoet

     If you think that freedom to do harm can be bought, then you are out of date regarding the latest thinking on slavery. I know that the Bible condones slavery, but many people now see the Bible for what it is – a largely despicable work of fiction.

  • http://twitter.com/LaCatholicState la catholic state

    I don’t believe in freedom to do harm….that’s why I’m Catholic and not Secularist.  Thank God there is no such thing as a permanent secular nation.  Cos it’s based on myth you see.

  • TreenonPoet

     Please read an article entitled ”Pakistani Christians discover the appeal of secularism” which might give you a better understanding of what secularism is.

  • TreenonPoet

     Please see my response to your post beginning ”Catholics are only allowed to kill…”.

  • TreenonPoet

     What about the unjust treatment of other victims of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws? And what about blasphemy laws and related religious laws in other countries?

  • http://twitter.com/ChrisPineo Christopher S. Pineo

     Church Militant! Hooah!

  • http://twitter.com/ChrisPineo Christopher S. Pineo

     Here’s what you can do: Put in some time. Get a blog going, get a job at a paper, and get into the business of bringing truth to the people. First you need to enact courage and start posting under your real name.

  • SpeakMyWord

    If you read Bibi’s autobiography (although it is only available in French and Spanish) it records how the villagers who screamed ‘haraam’ at the well also said “don’t you know your Jesus is a bastard, because he
    does not have a legitimate Father : convert to Islam to redeem yourself from
    your dirty religion” she replies : “I do not want to convert. I have faith in
    my religion and in Jesus Christ who was sacrificed on the cross for the sins of
    man.” How come Pakistan’s blasphemy law is not invoked against those who speak about Jesus in such a blasphemous way?To  drink a cup of water pales into insignificance at the side of this grotesque offense to Asia Bibi’s beliefs and Christians around the world. All Pakistani civilians are victims of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. By killing off anyone calling for the law’s reform (Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti) the nation is calling down the wrath of the Almighty. Reform before its too late!!! 

  • SpeakMyWord

    Dude…sharpen up…this is not about the Catholic Church. This is about a human being treated worse than an animal simply because she believes Jesus is the Son of God and she refuses to retract that belief. If the people you are defending kill Asia Bibi, either by hanging her or allowing her to wither away in prison, it wont be the Catholic Church who shows its power but Almighty God himself. The One True God does not applaud the cowardly assassination of innocent humanitarians, like Salman Taseer.  

  • Rachel M

    This is so tragic. And this is why I get so angry that the USCCB says that the Catholic Church is under attack in the US – it trivializes the true martyrdom that is going on around the world. I pray for Mrs. Bibi and all in her situation.

  • TreenonPoet

     I don’t understand why you are telling me to reform.

    By the way, if your god is almighty, then I presume He intended Taseer to be killed. If He has ceded some power to man, then He is not almighty.

  • TreenonPoet

     This is about religion and a particular consequence of the insanity of religion. The Roman Catholic Church is heavily involved as a major promoter of such insanity, albeit a different version of it. The RCC is directly responsible for similar injustices, but is also complicit in any injustices that result from the sort of thinking that the RCC promotes. For example, if the RCC supports the abhorrent principle of laws against blasphemy, then it can hardly complain when such laws are enforced in defence of another religion. If the RCC supports the freedom to act in accordance with religious beliefs, then it can hardly complain when those of another religion do so. Please don’t give me the “one true God” line. You have no more evidence for the existence of your god than Moslems do for the existence of theirs.

  • SpeakMyWord

    Do you have
    concrete examples of the RCC supporting laws against blasphemy that make it
    lawful to treat alleged offenders like animals before executing them? Without
    examples this suggestion can be dismissed as a speculative flight of fancy.  

    What kind of ‘religious’ belief makes it ok to arrest, imprison and condemn someone
    to death by hanging for drinking a cup of water to satisfy their burning thirst?
    Come on!!!! That kind of belief does not nourish enrichening relations between
    individuals building up harmonious communities. Rather it fuels hatred and actively
    dissolves the social fabric. Beliefs that allow another human being to be
    treated in this inhumane and undignified way are not ‘religious’…don’t kid
    yourself. They are acts of belligerence posturing as religion.

    There can be no scientific evidence
    for the existence of God. The presence of God is not mediated by the five
    senses and so is not evidence-based. The One True God reveals himself directly
    in the privacy of the human heart impelling acts of love. Hanging someone for
    drinking a cup of water is not an act of love inspired by God, Christian or
    Moslem. Don’t fool yourself…it is an act of hatred initiated by men cowering
    behind religion to whitewash their evil intentions.  

  • SpeakMyWord

    You reveal the darkness in your own heart by justifying the assassination of Salman Taseer 

  • TreenonPoet

     I am not justifying the assasination of Salman Taseer. No action can truly be justified by claiming that it was the will of a deity. That is an evil that religion encourages. Why do you think Taseer’s killer is openly revered by so many in Pakistan? Just to make it clear, I think that Taseer was a very honourable man and not only was his murder wrong, but the whole set of attitudes that led to his murder are wrong. That is what I am trying to criticise on this thread, and so far I have received no support. Talk about dark hearts!

  • TreenonPoet

    Do you have concrete examples of the RCC supporting laws against blasphemy that make it lawful to treat alleged offenders like animals before executing them? Without examples this suggestion can be dismissed as a speculative flight of fancy.” 

    Even jail terms or large fines are unacceptable responses to ‘blasphemy’ – they cannot be excused just because they are not as bad as death, in the same way that beheading cannot be excused just because it is not so bad as burning at the steak.

    Here is a related story:

    In India, fluid emanating from a religious statue was considered to be miraculous. The statue was much visited and some believers may well have touched the fluid. However, when a rationalist investigated the supposed miracle, he quickly discovered that the fluid came from a leaking sewage pipe. For his troubles, a complaint was lodged against him to the police by religious organisations accusing him of deliberately hurting religious feelings and attempting malicious acts intended to outrage the religious sentiments of the community.

    The rationalist’s name is Sanal Edamuruku. The religious organisations who are prepared to see this innocent man go to jail are Catholic. If you want to help this man, please sign this petition. If not, then are you better than Bibi’s persecutors just because he is ‘only’ threatened with jail?”

    What kind of ‘religious’ belief makes it ok to arrest, imprison and condemn someone to death by hanging for drinking a cup of water to satisfy their burning thirst? Come on!!!! That kind of belief does not nourish enrichening relations between individuals building up harmonious communities. Rather it fuels hatred and actively dissolves the social fabric. Beliefs that allow another human being to be treated in this inhumane and undignified way are not ‘religious’…don’t kid yourself. They are acts of belligerence posturing as religion.

    On the contrary, it is religion, and similar mass-brainwashing phenomena, that can cause otherwise good sane persons to perform such evil deeds and think that they are doing good. Religion is not necessary for enriching relations between individuals and building up harmonious communities; again, it can have the opposite effect.

    There can be no scientific evidence for the existence of God. The presence of God is not mediated by the five senses and so is not evidence-based. The One True God reveals himself directly in the privacy of the human heart impelling acts of love. Hanging someone for drinking a cup of water is not an act of love inspired by God, Christian or Moslem. Don’t fool yourself…it is an act of hatred initiated by men cowering behind religion to whitewash their evil intentions.

    It is true, especially in Pakistan, that false accusations are made in order to take advantage of religious laws. Blasphemy is a popular accusation, possibly because the accuser does not have to repeat what the defendant is accused of saying. But even if all accusations of blasphemy were genuine, it would still be wrong because laws against blasphemy are wrong. You cannot insult a non-existent god. Made up stories about something that cannot be detected impelling acts that can be detected are irrelevant.

  • EatMyCupCakes

    Mr Tree Poet…come down from the trees…no one can understand what you are saying…you appear to be saying that because you can catalogue excesses and blemishes in the Catholic church that Asia Bibi because she is a Catholic should expect to be treated like this. Her story and the way she has been treated is wrong on so many levels.If religion sucks for you then at least accept that it is wrong from a basic humanitarian point of view. Five children have been deprived of their mother because she was thirsty and needed a glass of water. This is an injustice that transcends the petty squabbles between 2 different faiths. 

  • TreenonPoet

     Of course the way Bibi has been treated is wrong. In an earlier reply to Jabba Papa I wrote ”It is the unjust treatment that Bibi has been subjected to that I hate”. Nowhere have I said that she deserves such treatment. Nowhere earlier have I referred to her religion, so I cannot see how it appears to you that I have. The way she has been treated would be wrong whatever her religion was.

    I agree that this is an injustice that transcends the petty squabbles between two different faiths. It comes down to the major conflict between religious faith and rationality. From a rational point of view, Bibi has been subjected to injustice. From a religious point of view, she may or may not have been subjected to injustice, depending on the relevant religious beliefs. From a rational point of view, laws against blasphemy are wrong. They are wrong in principle, yet such laws are passed around the world. At this moment, there is a man in jail in Indonesia because he has said he does not believe in one of the six religions (including Catholicism) that everyone there is expected to believe in. To me, this is utter madness. How can you believe something you don’t believe? What caused lawmakers to be so irrational? It is the same madness that resulted in the laws being used against Bibi.

  • Faith Over Reason

    ok…so you are basically a rationalist who believes that reason prevails over faith..if reason prevails you think the injustices that have been discussed including Asia Bibi’s imprisonment would not have happened…that’s fair enough…but believing in reason as the final arbiter of all disputes is nonetheless a belief requiring faith in the unimpeachability of reason..eg it seems reasonable that when the rights of an unborn child are asserted against the rights of the woman carrying that unborn child that the woman’s rights prevail…if for no other reason than that she can articulate her rights whereas the child can not…this kind of faith in reason has led to the extermination of millions of  unborn children. In other words the rationalist’s belief system has led to the extermination of human life on an unprecedented scale. The massacres conducted in the name of enlightened reason may take place silently and be clinically executed but they are massacres nevertheless conducted in the name of a belief system ie. the belief in the supremacy of reason. Hence, reform before its too late.

  • TreenonPoet

     Are you saying that emotion should trump reason? I don’t think that you have thought through the consequences of that (for example, regarding the 10 million who want to kill Bibi).

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_QJKL72QRSDWKYKUJG62PC3COCI Agusti

     Rachel, Crhist told us to be more afraid of the people who could kill your soul more than the people who could kill your body.
    Cheers from a Catalan.

  • James H

    If atheist societies weren’t such hell-holes, you might have a point.

    As it is…

  • James H

    Once again, religions do not have a monopoly on lunacy. Or did the 20th century show you nothing?

  • TreenonPoet

     I did not claim that religions have a monopoly on lunacy. That someone else has behaved in a lunatic manner is no excuse to do likewise.

  • TreenonPoet

    If, by ‘atheist societies’, you mean countries run by dictators who are presumed to be atheist, then I would point out that atheism by itself is no guarantor of rational or irrational behaviour. I regard agnostic atheism as the rational viewpoint. It does not follow that I think that everyone with that viewpoint is generally rational, but it is true that there is nothing about agnostic atheism that encourages irrationality, whereas theism (and gnostic atheism) insist on it.

  • Missah

    If allah is mericiful so should his people be!

  • TreenonPoet

     Qur’an 4:56 ”Lo! Those who disbelieve Our revelations, We shall expose them to the Fire. As often as their skins are consumed We shall exchange them for fresh skins that they may taste the torment. Lo! Allah is ever Mighty, Wise.

    I would not like to be subject to that sort of mercy.

  • Disqus

    I truly feel for this poor women! Her only consolation I guess is that if she is killed she be a saint!

  • matt

    So, Rachel, you don’t think there is a serious situation in the US and Britain?  Maybe we should just not worry, because it’s trivial, and let the Church drift out of existence?  The forces of evil are rejoicing…Try reading some of the most popular US web blogs, like Huffington Post.  Look at the Religious section.  Catholics, especially the clergy, are portrayed as evil, ignorant, rapacious, bigoted, stupid, criminal, perverted, and uneducated.  The Pope is pictured as a creepy old nazi pervert.  These constant attacks have continued daily, for years, in the Media.   Church attendance in the US declined about 40% in the last few decades, and the situation is getting worse.  So Rachel, there’s no real problem here, is that right? 

  • Dawnfirebird

    For goodness sake, the story is not about what one theological orientation did over the other and when. It is terrifying how many commentators are preoccupied with that rather than the crying out of a woman in deep distress. “Save Me” she cries, one human being crying out to others, who may even dare to cut through the crap and try to reach out a hand to lift a woman, mother, daughter and dreamer from the pit of a very real hell. A woman cries out for a hero, and most of the world offers her couch theoreticians. God help us all.