The first Catholic woman to be condemned to death under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws will discover her fate later this month, her family has said.
Asia Bibi, who has been held in solitary confinement since November 2010, when she was sentenced to hang for insulting Muhammad, the founder of Islam, will learn the outcome of her appeal to the Pakistan Supreme Court later in October, her husband, Ashiq Masih, told Catholic News Service.
If Bibi is released, he said, she and her family will immediately seek sanctuary in one of several countries that have offered them exile, because it was too dangerous for them to remain in Pakistan.
Ashiq, a builder from Sheikhupura, Pakistan, was in England with his and Bibi’s youngest daughter, Eisham Ashiq, as guests of Aid to the Church in Need, a Catholic charity helping persecuted Christians.
They said when they visited Bibi in Multan Prison on 1st October that she was in good health, contrary to speculation that she was developing dementia.
During the interview at St Columba’s Church, Ashiq said Bibi was praying constantly and that she deeply believed she would win her freedom.
“She is psychologically, physically and spiritually strong,” said Ashiq. “Having a very strong faith, she is ready and willing to die for Christ. She will never convert to Islam.
“She also wanted to deliver a message to the international community that they must remember her in their prayers. These prayers will open the door of the prison, and she will be released very soon,” he said.
“She is spending her life praying with a very strong faith and is reading the Bible every day. She feels when she is praying, Jesus is encouraging and supporting her,” he continued, adding that she also received Communion in jail on 1st October.
In June 2009 Bibi, who worked as a farmhand, was accused of blasphemy against Islam after Muslim women objected to her drinking from a common water supply because she is a Christian.
Eisham told CNS that, as a nine-year-old girl, she witnessed her mother being severely beaten by a Muslim mob in the aftermath of the accusation.
“I believe in God and I believe she will be released, but she can’t live in Pakistan once she has been released – simple as that,” she said.
Bibi was rescued by police, only to be sentenced to death for violating Section 295C of the Pakistan Penal Code, which makes insulting Muhammad a capital offense.
No-one has been executed under the law so far, but Christians who are falsely accused often are lynched or spend many years in prison.
Bibi’s final appeal will be heard by a special three-judge bench. The hearing represents her last chance at avoiding a death sentence for blasphemy. If the court upholds the execution order, the only option open to her lawyers will be a direct appeal for clemency to President Imran Khan.
Fr Emmanuel Yousaf, national director of Pakistan’s Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, who is accompanying the Bibis on their UK tour, confirmed that the hearing would start today.
“We have been waiting for this day for a very long time and thankfully it has finally arrived. We are praying continuously for Asia Bibi and we are confident of her acquittal.”
He said that it was likely that Ashiq and Eisha will cut short their tour of the UK and return to Pakistan as soon as possible but would make their decision only after they had consulted their lawyers.
Bibi’s case has divided Pakistan, with millions of Islamic militants reportedly willing to kill her to obtain a reward of 500,000 rupees offered by a Muslim cleric for her murder; some moderate Muslims have called for her release.
Among those who called for her release was the governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, who was assassinated in January 2011 after he said he would fight for her release.
Two months later, Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, was gunned down after he said he would seek the reform of the blasphemy laws to stop them being abused to persecute innocent Christians.
Now-retired Pope Benedict XVI is among those to have publicly called for Bibi’s release and, in February, Pope Francis received Ashiq and Eisham at the Vatican, while the Coliseum was bathed in red light to highlight the suffering of contemporary martyrs.
Ashiq said: “The pope encouraged us and said to us, ‘Don’t let your mind be disturbed’ and said ‘Pass on my encouragement to Asia Bibi and bless her as well.’ He said he is praying for her and that he believed she would be freed very soon.
“By meeting him, our faith was boosted,” he said. “We were already believing and have a strong faith, but listening to him really encouraged us.”
“Remember us in your prayers and support us as much as you can so that Asia Bibi can be released very soon,” Ashiq said. “When she is free, she will able to answer questions in person.”
Picture: Ashiq Masih and daughter Eisham Ashiq are pictured on 5th October in St Columba’s Church in Chester, England. Asia Bibi, Ashiq’s wife and Eisham’s mother, is a Catholic condemned to death under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. (CNS photo/Simon Caldwell).