Appeal to Pakistan for release of Asia Bibi and justice for Christians burned alive

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Catholics in Germany have presented an appeal to the German government and Pakistani Christians in Italy are pushing for a motion on religious freedom. A Muslim lawyer is now defending Asia Bibi.

This Christmas, our “thoughts are with Asia Bibi, the Christian woman unjustly sentenced to death for blasphemy in Pakistan.” The German government was asked to “do all [it] can on a diplomatic level to obtain her release and ensure a safe return to her family.” Missio-Achen, the German branch of the Pontifical Missionary Works, requested this as part of a new campaign that reflects the sentiments of Catholics across Germany and Europe. The petition it sent to Christoph Strässer, Commissioner for Human Rights Policy and Humanitarian Aid at the Federal Foreign Office, gathered 18,425 signatures in just three months.

The petition recalls the ordeal experienced by the innocent woman who was arrested on 19 June 2009 and sentenced to death in November 2010. It explains that “this is possible in Pakistan due to the existence of the blasphemy law”. The court of appeal’s recent ruling confirmed Asia’s death sentence. The woman has filed her final appeal against this to Pakistan’s Supreme Court.

Missio’s petition calls for Germany to put pressure on the Pakistani government to abolish the blasphemy law (Missio is an organisation known throughout the world for its campaigns in favour of cooperation and helping persecuted Christians). Aside from diplomatic efforts – which were recently indicated as the most efficient way of resolving Asia Bibi’s case – Missio has launched a prayer initiative that will be promoted mainly via social media, including Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus.

The woman’s husband, Ashiq Masih, recently came up with a new possible solution: asking Pakistan’s President Mamnoon Hussain to grant Asia a pardon. Although this was considered after the sentence imposed at first instance, a judge of Lahore’s Court of Appeals ruled this out because “a presidential pardon is only granted after a definitive sentence is passed down, after the third stage of legal proceedings has been reached.”

There is still a judicial controversy surrounding the issue as Article 45 of Pakistan’s Constitution gives the President full rights “to grant a pardon or revert any sentence passed down by any court.” The majority interpreted this to mean regardless of whether this is after the first, second or third instance hearing.

“We need international support to convince the Pakistani government to remove the blasphemy law, which has become an instrument for persecuting minorities, Christians in particular,” stated Christian lawyer, Mushatq Gill, who handled Asia Bibi’s case until the appeal was made to the Court of Appeals.

For the Supreme Court hearing, Asia’s family decided to opt for a defence college led by a Muslim lawyer, and a different defence strategy is to be followed. The lawyer in question is Saiful Malook. He was state prosecutor in Punjab governor Salman Taseers’ assassination case. Taseer, a Muslim politician, was killed by his body guard simply because he had defended Asia Bibi.

Christians have noticed that there are double standards when the blasphemy law is applied. Religious minorities are arrested and sentenced to death in no time at all, as happened in Asia Bibi’s case. If the accused is Muslim, however, police themselves take a very different approach, providing protection and helping the defendant. This is what happened to Mir Shakeel Ur Rehman, a communications magnate and owner of GeoTV, a major Pakistani broadcaster. He was accused of blasphemy after airing certain programmes. Shakeel Ur Rehman was given protection, no formal accusations were made against him and he was assisted in his expatriation.

In Italy too, an association of Pakistani Christians sent an appeal to the Italian parliament and government, calling for religious freedom in Pakistan. Reference was made to the the Christian couple Shahzad Masih and Shama Bibi who were burned alive after being accused of blasphemy.

According to witnesses who will be called to testify in the Supreme Court which has taken up the case, police agents who were present during the “lynching”, have not moved a finger. The Supreme Court will discuss this at the hearing on 16 December. Christians are waiting for justice to be made.

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By Paolo Affatato