Dialogue Not Death: Priest Calls for Discourse After Pakistan Suspends Asia Bibi’s Sentence

The Pakistani mother had been on death row for nearly five years, due to an accusation, which she denied, that she insulted Islam’s prophet Muhammad during an argument.

Ashiq Mesih, the husband of Asia Bibi, meets with Pope Francis after the Holy Father's general audience on April 15.
Ashiq Mesih, the husband of Asia Bibi, meets with Pope Francis after the Holy Father's general audience on April 15. (photo: CNA/Service Photo Vatican)

LAHORE, Pakistan — A Catholic priest in Pakistan has praised the nation’s Supreme Court for suspending the death sentence of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman charged with blasphemy, and has emphasized the importance of dialogue between Muslims and Christians.

“The Supreme Court of Pakistan has made a great move, as her death sentence was put aside,” Dominican Father James Channan said in a July 23 interview with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need. “I firmly believe that justice will be done, that she will be proven innocent and that she will be released.”

“The blasphemy law was used (in Bibi’s case) to settle a personal score — the accusation was an act of revenge,” the priest continued.

Bibi had been on death row for nearly five years, due to an accusation that she insulted Islam’s prophet Muhammad during an argument. Bibi denies the accusation and has stated her accusers were acting out of a personal vendetta.

Last week, the Supreme Court of Pakistan suspended Bibi’s execution and will soon hear her appeal. However, many Pakistanis have spoken out against the court’s decision and have said they would carry out the execution even if she is deemed innocent. Father Channan commented that “fanatics are determined to kill once someone is accused, regardless of the legal outcome of a particular case. … Our people need to be educated and come to respect decisions of the courts of law.”

Bibi’s trial is one of many charges of blasphemy in Pakistan. The nation’s blasphemy laws have often been misused for personal reasons or gain, and the accusations are often false, Father Channan warned.

Pakistan’s state religion is Islam, and around 97% of the population is Muslim. The nation has adopted blasphemy laws that impose strict punishment on those who desecrate the Quran or who defame or insult Muhammad.

The blasphemy laws are said to be often used to settle scores or to persecute religious minorities; while non-Muslims constitute only 3% of the Pakistani population, 14% of blasphemy cases have been levied against them.

Many of those accused of blasphemy are murdered, and advocates of changing the law are also targeted by violence.

In 2011, the Punjab governor, Salmaan Taseer, a Muslim critic of the blasphemy laws, was assassinated. Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic and the only Christian in Pakistan’s cabinet, was also assassinated the same year by militant supporters of the blasphemy laws.

Father Channan estimated some 130 Christians are currently being tried under Pakistan’s blasphemy law and that 950 Muslims are being held under the law.

“The misuse of the law should be stopped, such as its use to settle personal scores or to further business purposes,” he said.

Father Channan called for Pakistan’s government to revise its constitution, removing provisions that relegate Christians and other religious minorities to the status of second-class citizens. He also called for provisions to be put into place to punish those who falsely accuse others of blasphemy — an idea which he said is “also being supported by a growing number of Muslims, including some top leaders.”

The priest said interreligious dialogue will also help prevent malicious accusations of blasphemy. Father Channan directs the Dominican-run Peace Center in Lahore, which works to build ties with Pakistan’s Muslim majority.

Father Channan praised several key Muslim religious leaders who are taking part in Christian-Muslim dialogue, including Hafiz Tahir Mehmood Ashrafi, chairman of the Pakistan Ulama Council, and Maulana Abdul Khabir Azad, grand imam of Lahore’s Badshahi Mosque.

“Without dialogue, there is no future of the Church in Pakistan,” Father Channan cautioned. “Today … Christians live in a state of fear because of all the recent violence. We need to somehow find a way to work with the Muslim majority. … Building bridges between the communities is of vital importance, however long it takes.”

He added, “Pakistan’s Catholic Church is on the forefront of this process.”