Italy to Help Asia Bibi Leave Pakistan as Pressure Mounts to Grant Her Asylum
The Catholic mother of five faces a real possibility of death if she is released from jail but forbidden from leaving Pakistan.
Italy said on Tuesday it will help Asia Bibi obtain asylum after Pakistan’s government indicated the Catholic mother of five would not be allowed to go abroad, placing her and her family’s lives in danger.
Pakistan’s Supreme Court acquitted Asia Oct. 31 after she had spent eight years on death row, charged with blasphemy against Islam.
News of her acquittal sparked mass protests by Islamists in Pakistan, leading her husband, Ashiq Masih, to warn that he, Asia and their children could be killed.
Pakistan’s government announced yesterday it had started a process to put Asia on a no-fly list which observers say would be tantamount to a death sentence. She was jailed after allegedly making derogatory comments about Mohammad in 2009 to fellow farm workers.
Asia remains in prison awaiting her release while her family members remain at home in a safe place. Her defense lawyer, Saif ul-Malook, has already left the country for his own safety.
Italy’s deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini told Italian media Nov. 6 that he wants “women and children whose lives are at risk to be able to have a secure future, in our country or in other Western countries, so I will do everything humanly possible to guarantee that (for Asia).
“It is not permissible that in 2018 someone can risk losing their life” for a “hypothesis of blasphemy,” he added.
Ashiq appealed to the Italian government through the charity Aid to the Church in Need having already requested asylum from the U.S., Canada and the U.K. “We are extremely worried because our lives are in danger,” he told the charity by phone. “We don't even have anything to eat anymore because we can’t go out and buy it.”
He also appealed to the international community to keep Asia’s case high on their agenda. “It was precisely this attention that has kept her alive so far,” he said, and thanked Aid to the Church in Need in particular for their help.
At a time when many European countries are debating open-door immigration policies, governments have been noticeably silent about giving Asia Bibi asylum — with the exception of Italy. The current populist administration has been criticized for clamping down on illegal migrants, but has insisted it is not anti-immigrant and will grant asylum to those who genuinely need it.
Other Italian politicians on both sides of the political aisle have also voiced their support for giving Asia a safe passage out of the country, including former Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni who has urged the Italian government to “take all the necessary steps” to welcome her to Italy.
Politicians elsewhere in Europe have also voiced their support: French legislator Laurent Wauquiez and the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, have called on President Emmanuel Macron to grant Asia asylum. “The life of a woman depends on it,” said Wauquiez, “but so does civilization in the face of Islamist barbarism.”
Michael Brand, human rights expert to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU party, also urged that “every effort” be made so Asia Bibi could “live in freedom and security.”
But the general response has been one of silence. Giorgia Meloni, president of the Brothers of Italy party, said Nov. 7 she was “shocked by the silence of the West, particularly the European Union.” She said it was “an indecent and cowardly silence that confirms the sad decline of a Europe that fails to defend its roots, its identity and its history.”
Saving Asia, she said, “means saving what we are,” a Europe that has been “a beacon of civilization” for centuries. “The persecution of Christians in the world is an alarming phenomenon, that in some countries takes the form of a real genocide,” Meloni added.
Meanwhile, various online petitions have been set up to campaign for asylum for Asia and her family including LifePetitions, CitizenGo, the Catholic Tradition, Family and Property movement in Ireland, the British Pakistani Christian Association, and another addressed to British Prime Minister Theresa May.
The pressure is meeting strong resistance from Islamists. “There will be a war if they send Asia out of the country,” warned Khadim Hussain Rizvi, leader of Pakistan’s Tehreek-e-Labbaik Islamist party, concerned that it would represent a defeat for sharia law.
Alessandro Monteduro, director of Aid to the Church in Need in Italy, said the Catholic charity was trusting in world diplomacy to “restore Asia Bibi and her family to freedom and safety,” never forgetting that at stake is “respect for religious freedom, as defined in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
In Venice on Nov. 20 the charity will be illuminating the city’s palaces, churches and its lagoon as a sign of solidarity for “persecuted Christians and therefore Asia Bibi,” Monteduro told the Register Nov. 7, adding it will probably be the “largest event ever organized in the name of freedom of faith.”
In February, the charity organized a private papal audience for Ashiq and one of the couple’s children, Eisham, during which the Holy Father gave a special Rosary to pass on to her mother.
Speaking a few days later from her prison cell, Asia said it was a “miracle” she had been allowed to keep the Rosary.
“It is the first time in nine years that I have been able to hold a religious object in my cell,” she said, adding that she had received the Rosary “with devotion and gratitude” and that it would be of “great consolation for me, just as it comforts me to know that the Holy Father prays for me and thinks of me in these difficult conditions.”