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