LAHORE, Pakistan — Amid the growing international campaign demanding release of Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five sentenced by a trial court to death for blasphemy, a Church official in Pakistan says the local Church would prefer to maintain a solemn, prayerful vigil.
“We understand the concern behind such international campaigns. But the life of this woman is very important to us, and we will not do anything that would endanger her life,” Father Emmanuel Yousaf Mani, director of the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Pakistan, told the Register July 10 from Lahore.
Father Mani, when asked about the growing international campaign for the release of Bibi — who was arrested in 2009 and sentenced to death by a trial court on Nov. 11, 2010 — said, “Instead of making noises, we would prefer to keep quiet and wait for the high court to hear her appeal.”
Pakistan President Asif Ali Zaradri had dropped the clemency move for the condemned Christian mother after Islamic fundamentalist parties and groups staged massive demonstrations in Pakistan against the move.
The latest campaign for Bibi’s release has come from U.K.-based Christian pop band Ooberfuse, which announced in June a media blitz to raise awareness on the plight of the farmhand who has been in isolated detention in a dingy Sheikhupura prison.
The Free Asia Bibi media-awareness campaign includes the release of a song titled Free Asia Bibi, a music video and an information website. The music video features a disturbing visual portrayal of the squalid prison conditions where Bibi is being held.
“When we were invited to be involved in this project, we knew very little about the life and significance of Asia Bibi. We started reading all of the press accounts of her trial and condemnation to death,” said Hal St. John, a member of Ooberfuse. The band stumbled across Bibi’s biography, Blasphème, written by French journalist Anne Isabelle Tollet, who was based in Pakistan during 2008-2011, states Ooberfuse on its website about the release of the song.
An award-winning pop band, Ooberfuse was a featured performer at World Youth Day in Madrid and has recently been commissioned by the U.K. Catholic Church to compose a soundtrack to promote religious vocations.
“We want the world to not just hear her story, but to do something about it,” said Cherrie Anderson, the frontwoman of Ooberfuse. The song can be downloaded at Ooberfuse.com; proceeds from the sale will be donated for the benefit of Bibi’s family via the British Pakistani Christian Association.
Elaborating on why the Church in Pakistan does not want to scream for Bibi’s release, Father Mani pointed out how two prominent leaders, including Salman Taseer, Muslim governor of Punjab province, have been assassinated in Pakistan for trying to set her free with presidential amnesty.
Shahbaz Bhatti, the 42-year-old Catholic minister for minority affairs in Pakistan’s federal cabinet, was ambushed by unidentified gunmen and pumped with bullets in his car as he was being driven from his residence to his office in Islamabad on March 2, 2011.
An outspoken critic of Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy law that provides for a death sentence even for unintentional acts of blasphemy, Bhatti himself became a target of Islamic fundamentalists after he initiated a clemency petition for Bibi in November 2010.
Taseer had been assassinated weeks before Bhatti, on Jan. 4, by his own body guard, Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, who proudly claimed that he killed the governor for daring to call the blasphemy legislation “a black law.”
“The moment one is accused of blasphemy, his life is in danger,” noted Father Mani, referring to the latest mob killing of a person accused of blasphemy on July 4 at Bahawalpur in Punjab province.
A riotous mob attacked a police station, burned police vehicles and torched alive a “deranged” man in police custody; following complaints by residents that the unidentified man had thrown pages from the Quran onto the street, he was arrested.
“The government must not only compensate the family of the deceased for its failure to protect the life of a man in police custody from ‘mob justice,’ but also take concrete measures to avoid such unfortunate incidents in the future,” demanded the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in a statement on July 5.
The Paris-based Tollet, who wrote Bibi’s personal testimony — which will be published in the United States under the title Get Me Out of Here — said in an email interview that “even her husband and five children are also suffering from the accusation blasphemy.”
“They are all living [under] the threat of death and have gone into hiding, frequently moving house and unable to go outside or to work. The children miss their mother badly and have stopped going to school for their own safety. The youngest is only 9 years old,” pointed out Tollet. “Her health is deteriorating, her husband risks being killed every time he visits her [in jail], and her children cannot see their mother for their own safety.”
Tollet pointed out that it was Bhatti, the assassinated Catholic minister, who supported her effort to tell Bibi’s story to the world though she could never meet her in prison.
After much discussion and persuasion by Bhatti, Bibi’s husband, Ashiq Masih, took Tollet’s translated questions to the prison for her response, said the French journalist.
She added, “For two months I would wait for Ashiq at the prison gate, and there, with the help of an Urdu-English interpreter, he would tell me Asia’s answers to my questions.”
For now, the uphill struggle continues: The Pakistani court has yet to take up her appeal against the blasphemy conviction and death sentence.
And a cleric in Peshawar has offered a reward of 5,000 euro to anyone who kills the mother of five.
Register correspondent Anto Akkara writes from Bangalore, India.