Last week, a panel of three judges on Pakistan’s Supreme Court upheld their decision to overturn the blasphemy conviction and death sentence of Asia Bibi, a Christian wife and mother.
The case has gained international attention over the more than nine years since Asia’s arrest, stemming from a dispute between her and her Muslim co-workers. After Asia allegedly drank from a water cup reserved for Muslims, her co-workers scolded her and pressured her to convert to Islam — the religion of 95 percent of Pakistan’s population.
Asia was accused of telling her co-workers, in response, that while the Prophet Muhammad is dead, Jesus is still alive. Days later, police filed a First Information Report accusing Asia of blasphemy against Muhammad (no Islamic scholar denies that Muhammad did, in fact, die, and the mullah who reported the offense was not present when the alleged blasphemy occurred). Sections B (blaspheming the Quran) and C (blaspheming Muhammed) of Pakistan’s infamous blasphemy law (Law 295) allow police to make an arrest based on the complaint of just one person alleging blasphemy.
Asia was convicted of blasphemy against Muhammed in 2010 and sentenced to death by hanging. A local mullah told media members he shed “tears of joy” when he heard Asia would be executed.
After Asia’s first appeal, an appellate court upheld both the conviction and death sentence in 2014. Asia then turned to Pakistan’s Supreme Court, which agreed to review her appeal. Finally, four years later, they issued their controversial decision.
Quoting the Quran, the Hadith and Shakespeare, the Supreme Court justices found multiple errors in the proceedings of Asia’s lower-court trial, overturning the verdict and sentence, and ordering Asia’s release.
While Christians and many others around the world rejoiced, radical Muslims in Pakistan promised nationwide protests and even threatened the judges who allowed “the blasphemer” to go free. Schools in Pakistan have been closed through this week in hope that any potential for violence will have passed by then.
There were media reports Bibi was leaving Pakistan for a safer country.
So how do we, Christians in the United States, respond to this good news from Pakistan? Of course we rejoice! But we also weep.
1. We Rejoice that Our Sister Will Be Free …
A wife — unjustly convicted and held in jail for more than nine years — is reunited with her husband! A mother has been reunited with her daughters! It is impossible not to celebrate this good news. We rejoice that this Christian woman is out of jail, and we pray she will soon be in a place where her safety will be protected.
But We Weep that It Took So Long
Asia Bibi’s daughters have grown from girls into young women, and their mother wasn’t allowed to be a part of their lives. How many significant moments have they missed together? How many changes have occurred in your family in the past nine years? More than nine years have passed since Asia cooked dinner for her family or hugged her girls as she sent them off to school. NINE YEARS.
The “evidence” against Asia Bibi hasn’t grown weaker in those years. No key witness died or changed her story, and no exonerating DNA was discovered. This was a case that never should have been filed by local officials, and certainly never should have resulted in a guilty verdict upheld on first appeal. Why did it take so long?
2. We Rejoice that Pakistan’s Legal System Worked …
I have traveled to Washington, D.C., three times with teams from The Voice of the Martyrs to deliver signed petitions to the Pakistan Embassy calling on its government to release Asia Bibi. More than 500,000 people from around the world — including Pakistanis — signed the petition.
On one of our visits, we met directly with a deputy to the ambassador. And every time we went, we heard the same message: “We have to let the legal system work.”
Thankfully, the system did eventually work for Asia Bibi. A conviction and sentence on a charge that never should have been filed has been overturned. An innocent wife and mother is out of jail. And that freedom came from within Pakistan’s legal system rather than from a pardon or other extrajudicial intervention.
The system failed at the local court level and again at the appellate court level. But on final appeal, on the verge of a third strike, the Supreme Court stood up — under immense pressure not to do so — and scored a victory for justice. We rejoice that the system worked, and we hope that Pakistan’s government and people will honor the decision of their highest court.
But We Weep that the Unjust Blasphemy Law Remains in Place
Under Section 295 of Pakistan’s Penal Code, evidence isn’t required to bring blasphemy charges. If someone says he heard or saw a blasphemous act, the “blasphemer” is locked up for years … if not killed first by radical-Muslim vigilantes “defending the honor” of their faith.
Not only Christians but also hundreds of Muslims have been falsely accused under the blasphemy law, which has become an easy way of settling scores or getting rid of enemies. By the time the court determines that no blasphemy occurred and sets the person free, his or her property has been taken or their accuser has “won” the dispute.
A tragically ironic result of the Supreme Court’s decision in favor of Asia Bibi is that lower courts may now feel less pressure to diligently examine future blasphemy cases, especially when radical Muslims are demanding “justice” in the name of Allah. Local court judges — and even higher court judges — may think, Why risk my life for this case? The Supreme Court will set it right, and I won’t have to look over my shoulder the rest of my life.
A far better solution would be for Pakistan’s government to modify or eliminate this unjust law.
3. We Rejoice that One Family Is Free from Persecution and Oppression …
The hope is that Asia and her family will soon be out of Pakistan—if they are not already out by the time you read these words. It isn’t safe for them to remain in the country. There have been too many cases where the courts overturned a 295 verdict, only to have the accused killed outside the courthouse or soon after their release. Radicals unsatisfied with the justice system often enact Quranic punishment themselves.
Asia and her family will be welcomed into a safer, Western nation, where opportunities for education for their girls and plenteous food and material blessings will be in reach. Their battle for justice is—I hope—almost over. There are wounds that need to heal, yes, but that healing will be able to take place—and we pray it does take place—away from the battlefield.
But We Weep that So Many Pakistani Christians Are Threatened with Death Every Day
Thousands of Christians in Pakistan lack the opportunities that Asia and her family, by God’s grace, should now have. They wake up every day and face demeaning, laborious, low-paying jobs as street sweepers or sewer workers, jobs reserved for the lowest in Pakistani society. Or they work as a kind of indentured servant in a brick kiln. Christian women are hired as house cleaners in Muslim homes — places they often feel (for good reason) unsafe. Their pay is a dollar or less per day. And if they don’t like it there’s no one to hear their complaint. Advanced educational opportunities are out of reach; Christians face a difficult life from their first breath.
This month, Christians around the world pray for our persecuted brothers and sisters in Pakistan and other nations on The International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. It is no accident, I think, that The Voice of the Martyrs’ video for this year’s Day of Prayer focuses on Christians in Pakistan. Shot inside Pakistan, the video shows the everyday oppression and persecution faced by Christians there.
It shows something else, too, though. It shows their joy. They may be outcasts in their own country, but the Bible says followers of Jesus are, first, citizens of heaven and that we should focus more on that citizenship than on our earthly citizenship.
For more than nine years, Christians around the world have prayed for a wife and mother in a Pakistani jail cell. We’ve prayed for her husband and her daughters. We’ve prayed for her lawyer and for the judges presiding in her case. This week our prayers were answered, and we rejoice!
There are still imprisoned Christians to pray for this Sunday and every day: Pastor John Cao in China, Pastor Haile Naizgi in Eritrea, and Asia’s countryman, Imran Ghafur, who remains in prison in Pakistan on Law 295 charges. There are others in Iran, North Korea and other nations—many whose names we will never know or hear. We pray with expectation and look forward to the day when we can rejoice for them as we do today for Asia Bibi and her family.
Todd Nettleton is the host of VOM Radio for The Voice of the Martyrs, a nonprofit, interdenominational Christian missions organization. The Voice of the Martyrs founder, Pastor Richard Wurmbrand, was imprisoned 14 years in Communist Romania for his faith in Christ. More about his story at https://www.torturedforchrist.com/.