The precarious situation Aasia Bibi finds herself in reflects an abject failure on the part of Pakistan’s authorities to ensure her safety.
Conversations concerning the state of the Persecuted Church and various publications specialising in this field was always accessible to me. Growing up in a household where the decision had been made to leave Islam for Christianity, naturally, it came with the territory.
I first stumbled across Aasia Noreen Bibi as a 15-year-old, among the piles of Barnabas Aid magazines we’d accumulate month after month. Having read about individual cases of anti-Christian treatment since childhood: imprisonment, rape, murder and general discriminatory behaviour; the case of Aasia Bibi strikes a particular, personal nerve. Hailing from the same region as my mother, the degradation of Bibi highlights the vulnerability of Christian women in Pakistan. Aasia’s unrelenting and steadfast faith – from being challenged by her accusers to her years of imprisonment – has troubled my conscience as she reminds me that my mother, born and raised in a Punjabi village setting, may not have fared so differently had she been faced with the same Islamist affront.
News of her eventual acquittal was dumbfounding, immediately marred by Tehreek-e-Labbaik’s violent rampage and the government’s concession to acquit but not wholly free the Masih family from Pakistan; in spite of the apparent threat to their lives should they remain in the country.
For reasons she may never be able to fathom, Aasia is probably the most controversial figure in Pakistan. She is a symbol, enshrined in history as the woman who tested the political climate in a post-Jinnah, post-ul Haq Pakistan; where those fighting for an inclusive ‘Pakistan for all’ struggle against those who strive towards an exclusively Islamic society. She has become the emblem of hope for minorities, who are still eligible for constitutional protection and cannot be systemically murdered by the state via the Penal Code; while being an object of hate amongst the puritans in Pakistani society. She has become too much of a high profile figure to remain in her country of birth, where Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti were killed for their efforts to defend Bibi – and where Bibi’s lawyer has fled after her acquittal.
Exonerated but not Emancipated
But, where to flee? In his video statement released on 4 November, Ashiq Masih, husband to Bibi, appealed to Britain, the US and Canada to grant his family asylum; the desperation on his face palpable.
The subsequent denial of asylum by the British government sparked a furore amongst UK politicians: from the Shadow Foreign Secretary and former Foreign Secretary calling on May to grant Bibi refuge, to Conservative party vice-chairman Chisti’s resignation. The alleged fear for embassy staff safety and hypothetical reprisals from fundamental sects within the British Muslim community provoked a tirade of online scorn, dissent and disbelief.
The denial of asylum is indicative of the state of modern Britain. It shows that Britain apparently prioritises the threat of envisioned uprisings from Islamic extremists, over the needs of a wanted Christian woman seeking sanctuary in a country that once stood as an emblem of bold, unapologetic Christendom. However, I do think that the decision to withhold asylum is ultimately the right move, in the long-run. Adherence to blasphemy is not confined to Muslim countries alone, as the support for Mumtaz Qadri – infamous for assassinating Salman Taseer- within Britain indicates. Popular UK-based clerics mourned the death of Qadri, releasing statements to their large followings. For example, Bradford-based Imam Muhammmad Asim Hussain posted to his then 100,000 followers that the execution of Qadri was a ‘dark day in the history of Pakistan’. Bolton-based Imam Masood Qadiri referred to Qadri as a ‘martyr ‘ and ‘warrior’ and flew to Pakistan to attend his funeral.
Moreover, there is my personal experience. My father’s decision to convert from Islam to Christianity resulted in 18 years of anti-Christian persecution. Members of the Pakistani communities we lived in decided to avenge this act of blasphemy through hostility, community ostracisation, bricking of house and car windows, attempted arson and an eventual attempt on my father’s life resulted in our family expelled from Bradford and living in what the family dubs a ‘safe house. I am witness to life as a religious minority in a predominantly Muslim community, where tribal politics is heavily oppressive, facilitated by local Labour Muslim MPs and councillors, solely concerned with the re-election imperative and a submissive local police force, terrified of being smeared as racists or Islamophobes. Christian persecution is real and rife in such large, Islamic contexts and it from this pretext that to spare a woman in need of guaranteed safety and peace is to deny her asylum in Britain.
Trudeau’s efforts to possibly relocate Aasia and her family to Canada is commendable and perhaps the prospect of asylum in North America is the current ideal for the Masih family. Bibi’s plight is far from ideal, however. How does one come to terms with a decade in prison, irretrievable family moments, irreversible brokenness and trauma? Further compounded by the fear of being openly murdered virtually anywhere in Pakistan, future expulsion from your native land to a foreign country, in an attempt to just live. Pakistan has truly failed Aasia Bibi and must now let her go and I for one can only trust in the God she has refused to renounce, to undertake a process of restoration she and her family are long overdue.