Framed on the charges of Blasphemy – one of world’s most draconic laws, Aasia Bibi was a death row prisoner in Pakistan before finding a safe passage to Canada.
Her ordeal started when she mediated in a fight and was herself charged with blasphemy. A trial court in 2010 sentenced her to death on blasphemy charges and her fate hung in balance for eight long years till she was cleared by a higher court and allowed to leave for Canada.
There were violent riots for three days in Pakistan when Bibi was acquitted. Earlier, Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab and a prominent politician who spoke out against blasphemy laws and in favour of Bibi, was shot 27 times by his own bodyguard. Shockingly, many countries, including the UK declined to offer Bibi asylum. She was eventually taken in by Canada.
Now, a book details the years of uncertainty and terror that Aasia Bibi spent for eight years on the death row. The book ‘Enfin libre!’ (Finally Free!) by French journalist Anne-Isabelle Tollet is out in French while the English version will hit the stands in September.
“You are far from understanding my daily life in prison or my new life. I became a prisoner of fanaticism and tears were the only companions in the cell,” she co-wrote about the dreadful conditions in filthy jails, where she was chained and other inmates were allowed to taunt her and demand a death sentence for her.
“My wrists are burning me, it is hard to breathe. My neck is encased in an iron collar that the guard can tighten with a huge nut. A long chain drags along on the filthy ground. This connects my neck to the handcuffed hand that pulls me like a dog on a lead. Deep within me, a dull fear takes me towards the depths of darkness. A lacerating fear that will never leave me,” she recalls.
What about the conditions of Christians in Pakistan now that she has been freed? “Even with my freedom, the climate does not seem to have changed and Christians can expect all kinds of reprisals. They live with this sword of Damocles over their head,” she said.
The plight of Christians in Pakistan explains some of the reasons why the West must care about Christian persecution. Firstly, Christians in Pakistan are a poverty-stricken minority with an estimated population of some four million. The majority of Pakistan’s Christians are descended from low-caste Hindus who converted during the British Raj – partly to escape the caste system.
Secondly, Christian women are disproportionately affected by the persecution. Women and young girls are kidnapped, raped, converted to Islam and forced to marry their violators.
Thirdly, persecution of Christians generally accompanies persecution of other minorities like the Hindus, Sikhs or the Ahmadayas community in Pakistan. Repressing the minorities and Kafirs (one who does not believe in Allah) has literally become the state policy of Pakistan.
Recent attacks on Christians include:
- An attack on a church in Quetta in December 2017 that killed nine people and injured 57
- A suicide attack targeting Christians celebrating Easter at a Lahore playground in March 2016 left 70 dead and more than 340 wounded
- Two bomb blasts at churches in Lahore in March 2015 killed 14 and hurt more than 70 people
- A twin suicide bomb attack at a Peshawar church in 2013 left around 80 dead
- In 2009, nearly 40 houses and a church were burnt by a mob in Gojra town in Punjab, with eight people burnt alive
- In 2005, hundreds fled their homes in Faisalabad as churches and Christian schools were set on fire by a mob, after a resident was blamed for burning pages of the Koran
Since the 1990s, scores of Christians have also been convicted of “desecrating the Koran” or “blaspheming against the Prophet Muhammad”, even though critics say most of the complaints are stoked by personal disputes.
Many experts also term this as a strategy by the country’s powerful army which is known to have protected Islamist militants operating in Afghanistan and India and backed anti-blasphemy vigilante groups in the past.