WASHINGTON — A Pakistani Christian woman imprisoned on death row for over eight years based on trumped-up blasphemy charges recounted how that experience helped her “grow strong in faith.”
In an address to religious freedom advocates at the annual International Religious Freedom Summit, Asia Bibi, aided by a translator, described how her experience in prison transformed her from an “ordinary Christian” into a passionate defender and believer of the faith.
Bibi's ordeal began when Muslim field workers accused her of contaminating their water supply by drinking from the same water container, rendering it "impure" because Christians are viewed as unclean. An argument ensued between Bibi and the women that escalated into a criminal complaint after the women publicly accused her of committing blasphemy by insulting the Islamic prophet Muhammad, a charge that brings a sentence of life in prison or death by hanging.
During a police investigation into her alleged crime, Bibi was beaten up in her home and arrested. In 2009, she was convicted and sentenced to death under section 295-C of Pakistan's blasphemy law.
She was acquitted on Oct. 31, 2018, and later granted asylum in Canada on May 8, 2019, after other countries, including England, decided not to offer her asylum amid concerns over a potential uprising among their fundamentalist Muslim populations.
Bibi, who never wavered from declaring her innocence of the charge, was among several persecuted religious minorities to address the three-day summit in Washington last week.
“I was doing fine with my family prior to 2009 when the incident occurred,” Bibi said Thursday, the last day of the summit. After facing the allegation of blasphemy, she was interrogated at a police station and began “weeping.” She explained that “public pressure” played a role in her charges and sentencing. Initially, she was incarcerated for four years in a jail near her home.
Patrick Sookdeho of the Barnabas Fund, a Christian aid agency and one of several advocacy groups that sponsored the summit, explained that Pakistan's blasphemy law “has been used by those who are unhappy with Christians or [used against] a particular Christian as a weapon” to “settle scores.”
He cited an example of a shopkeeper who wanted to put a Christian competitor out of business, noting that all he had to do was accuse him of blasphemy because “the mere accusation by a Muslim of insulting Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, means automatic arrest and trial.”
Bibi’s imprisonment on a charge of blasphemy is just one example of how such an accusation can be leveraged against Christians and religious minorities in Pakistan. Bibi, who was born Aasiya Noreen, attributed the blasphemy allegation that led to her imprisonment for nearly a decade to a “tension” between her family and “the leader of that village” where she was residing at the time with her husband and children. She believes that the leader “planted” the blasphemy charge against her.
She felt “totally broken" after being sentenced to prison. But she soon faced a reversal of fortune, she said.
“After a week of continued weeping and crying out to [the] Lord, one of the early mornings I [saw] one of the bird visited … nearby the same area where I was [imprisoned], and it was looking like somebody is talking to me.”
“At first, I was really astonished when I saw [that] some bird is looking at me. I thought, ‘what happened?’” she said. Bibi then determined that the bird proved that her father’s assertion that “sometimes, God reveals [Himself] to someone in different ways” was true.
Bibi then began talking to the bird. “I don’t know why this word came out from my mouth, but I said, ‘peace be upon you.’ … I was talking to a bird.”
Even as she faced the death penalty for false charges of blasphemy, Bibi’s encounter with the bird enabled her to see a silver lining: “That situation lifted me up, and my hope started. So this practice carried on for [the] next three years. At the same time, at 4 a.m., the same bird visited me, and that lifted me up.”
Bibi, who had previously characterized herself as an ordinary Christian, said the morning visits from that bird as a sign from God “led me to grow strong in faith.”
At the first jail where she was housed, she began a routine of feeding that bird with what little provisions she had to spare. What she did, she said, “was doing this practice to have a pot of water and some kind of food for that bird that really came to [visit] me every day.”
“They transferred me from that jail where I was, where … the bird was visiting me, to another jail,” she continued. “My prison changed from one area to [the] other area, but the bird [kept] on visiting me in that jail also. So I started keeping up the same practice [of] feeding them … and that’s also .... giving me courage to grow more in my faith. … I was sharing my faith even with those birds also, and that has led me to be more strong in faith.”
In addition to crediting visits from the bird for giving her strength and faith, Bibi rejoiced about the advice she received from her father during her imprisonment: “'Don’t worry about your life, if you are going to be killed, but never compromise on your faith and be strong.'”
She also thanked nongovernmental organizations and churches for taking care of her family while she was in prison. When Bibi’s children visited her in jail, she said they told her that “the people are praying for me.”
Their prayers were answered, Bibi declared, because she was released from prison in a development she described as a “miracle.”
She stressed that her fate would not have been possible “without God’s intervention.” Channeling her father’s advice, the persecuted Pakistani prisoner-turned-activist concluded her remarks by urging Christian “children, youth and the families in Pakistan” to “grow in their faith” and “stay strong in their faith.”
In his remarks, Sookdeho elaborated on the extent of blasphemy laws in Pakistan.
“In Pakistan today, there are at least five Christians on death row for blasphemy," he explained. "There are 20 Christians in prison on blasphemy charges.” He further reported that “Since 1990, at least 15 Christians have been murdered because of blasphemy allegations, often before trial has begun.”
Sookdeho stressed that the allegations of blasphemy and the harsh treatment and discrimination that Christians in Pakistan experience “does not come from the government, perse, but rather from the institutions of society.”
He also praised the current government of Pakistan for working to eliminate the “discriminatory practices” against Christians. But he contended that as long as the religious establishment remains “resistant to change,” Christians will continue to find themselves disadvantaged and “at the bottom” of the country’s rigid social structure.
In her testimony at the summit, Bibi expressed a desire to “be a voice” for her “Christian brothers and sisters.”
After reiterating that she wanted to “be a voice for Christian people, Christians in prison and in difficulties,” the activist called on Christians worldwide to “join hands and stand together so we can be a voice for our Christian brothers and sisters who are suffering and help them out of their situations like the Lord has done for me.”
Ryan Foley is a reporter for The Christian Post. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org