Pakistani Christian mother Asia Bibi, who spent nearly a decade on death row over trumped-up blasphemy charges before she was released and granted asylum in Canada last year, says she plans to apply for political asylum in France.
On Tuesday, Bibi, whose real name is Aasiya Noreen, spoke with various media outlets in Paris where she talked about her experiences in Canada and her desire to move to France.
Bibi is in Paris to promote her newly released book, Enfin Libre! (Finally Free). The book was co-written by French journalist Anne-Isabelle Tollet. Tollet was among many who campaigned for Bibi’s release from prison.
“My great desire is to live in France,” said Bibi, who doesn’t speak English or French, but was quoted in Urdu during an interview with the French radio network RTL. “France is the country from where I received my new life. ... Anne-Isabelle is an angel for me.”
Bibi, a farm laborer and mother of five, was accused by other Muslim laborers of insulting Islam's prophet Muhammad during an argument that ensued after they berated her — a Christian — for daring to drink from the same water source as them back in 2009. They accused her of making the water "impure" because she is a Christian. Muslims are forbidden from drinking from the same container as Christians.
As blasphemy is a crime punishable by death or life imprisonment in Muslim-majority Pakistan, Bibi maintained her innocence but was found guilty. In 2010, Bibi was sentenced to death. But after years of building international pressure, Bibi was acquitted by Pakistan’s Supreme Court in October 2018.
After her release, she was prevented from leaving the country as Muslims protested her acquittal and demanded a review. After her acquittal was upheld in January 2019, Bibi was allowed to leave the country last May.
While it's been nearly 10 months since she fled to Canada from Pakistan, she admitted in an interview with Agence France Press that she hasn’t been able to get out of the house much because of the cold and snow.
In Canada, Bibi is living with her husband and two of her daughters in an apartment. Although threats to her life came in bulk from radicals in Pakistan, Bibi explained that she has not recently received any threats that she knows about.
Although she is safe in Canada, she said that she misses her sister, brothers, and in-laws back in Pakistan. Although Bibi faces the risk of being killed if she were to return to Pakistan, she one day hopes her home country will be safe enough for her to return. Although she loves her country, she told RTL that she fears she is in “exile forever.”
According to AFP, Bibi was given a one-year stay in Canada after her release from Pakistan.
"I know the European Union is working very hard on my case and they are the ones who will decide where I am going to be living," Bibi said.
But she explained that she will “very likely” discuss the idea of seeking asylum in France when she meets with President Emmanuel Macron on Friday.
Responding to reports of Bibi’s desire, The Associated Press reports that Macron’s office has said that French authorities are “ready to welcome Asia Bibi and her family in France if this is what they wish to do.”
On Tuesday, Bibi was given an honorary citizenship award by Paris' Mayor Anne Hidalgo.
Bibi assured that she is “enormously grateful to Canada” for giving her family a place to take asylum for the last several months. But she told RTL that she wants to work “hand-in-hand” with Tollet to pressure Pakistani authorities to release others imprisoned for blasphemy.
Pakistani human rights activists Shaan Taseer told the U.S. State Department’s Ministerial on Religious Freedom last July that there are as many as 200 people imprisoned in Pakistan for blasphemy with at around 40 or so on death row.
Lisa Curtis, senior director for South and Central Asia at the U.S. National Security Council, told the ministerial there are more people imprisoned for blasphemy in Pakistan than all the other countries in the world combined.
Bibi’s case helped raise global awareness of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws as the country ranks as the fifth-worst country in the world for Christian persecution on Open Doors USA’s 2020 World Watch List.
Additionally, Pakistan was labeled by the State Department in December 2018 as a “country of particular concern” for engaging in egregious violations of religious freedom.
In her memoir, Bibi allegedly wrote that she — an “illiterate peasant” — never thought she “would become a global symbol of the fight against religious extremism.”
"From my small windowless cell, I often wondered why Pakistan was targeting me,” Bibi was quoted as writing.
She recalled times when her neck would be encased in an iron collar that prison guards tightened with a nut.