Pope Francis walks with family members of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who will start a new life in Canada after being released from prison in Pakistan on blasphemy charges that carried a death sentence, during a private audience at the Vatican last February. CNS photo/Vatican Media

New life in Canada awaits Asia Bibi

  • February 6, 2019

After a decade of prayer, diplomacy and legal wrangling, a persecuted Christian farmhand and her family is about to start a new life in Canada.

The imminent arrival of Pakistani refugee Asia Bibi — in a case that attracted the attention of two Popes and several government leaders, and led to the assassination of two Pakistani politicians — has been called a great day for religious freedom and justice. After spending eight years on death row on trumped-up blasphemy charges, Bibi will be settled in a secret location in Canada and reunited with her husband and two teenage daughters.

At The Catholic Register’s press time, the Canadian government was remaining tight-lipped until Bibi actually lands in Canada.

“We are focused on ensuring the safety of Asia Bibi and her family,” said Guillaume Berube of Global Affairs Canada. “We are working with like-minded friends and allies on this issue. Canada is prepared to do everything we can to ensure the safety of Asia Bibi.”

Canada’s former Ambassador for Religious Freedom Deacon Andrew Bennett called the offer of asylum for Bibi “a great decision.”

“I applaud the government for doing it,” he told The Catholic Register.

Bibi’s case concerned Bennett throughout his years as Canada’s Ambassador for Religious Freedom from 2013 to 2016.

“I certainly raised her case in engaging Pakistani officials both here in Canada and when I was in Pakistan in March of 2014,” Bennett said.

Bibi’s path to Canada was cleared on Jan. 29 when Pakistan’s supreme court ruled that she would not be retried on blasphemy charges stemming from a 2009 incident in which she was accused of drinking water from the cup of a Muslim woman. She was found guilty of insulting Muhammad and sentenced to death. That verdict was overturned last year by the Supreme Court and upheld in the recent decision.

After Bibi’s acquittal in October, violent mobs protested in Lahore and Bibi was transferred to protective custody while members of Tehreek-e-Labbaik, a quasi-religious movement in Pakistan, went house-to-house seeking to kill her. Her daughters, 18 and 19 years old, were quietly brought to Canada in December. When Great Britain turned down Bibi’s request for asylum, Canada stepped in.

“On behalf of the persecuted Christians in Pakistan, we thank you for your incredible care and compassion for Asia Bibi,” said Sheraz Khan, the founder of U.K.-based Global Minorities Alliance, in an e-mail. “God bless you, and God bless Canada.”

Khan said he was “appalled” that the U.K. government rejected Bibi’s request for asylum. He called the government’s worries about civil unrest “ridiculous.” 

“Britain not only departed from its long and cherished tradition of giving asylum to people fleeing persecution, but its refusal also emboldened religious conservatives in Pakistan, the UK and around the world,” he said. 

While the case was still before Pakistani courts, there was little Canadian diplomacy could do directly on Bibi’s case. But the issue of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws has been a constant concern. 

In 2011, Pakistani politicians Shahbaz Bhatti and Salmaan Taseer were assassinated after publicly calling for the blasphemy laws to be repealed and for Bibi to be released. Bhatti, the only Christian in Pakistan’s cabinet, had visited Ottawa and addressed Parliament weeks before he was killed. That led the House of Commons to unanimously pass a motion “calling upon the Government of Pakistan to immediately release Ms. Asia Bibi, to ensure her safety and well-being, to hear the outcry of the international community and to respect the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” 

Bibi’s case was also a concern of Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. In 2010, Benedict urged that she be granted “complete freedom… as soon as possible.” In 2014 Bibi wrote to Pope Francis: “I am your daughter, Asia Bibi. I implore you: pray for me, for my salvation and for my freedom.” Last year Pope Francis met with Bibi’s husband Ashiq Masih and daughter Eisham. 

Aid to the Church in Need Canada has been soliciting prayers on behalf of Bibi for almost a decade, as the international pontifical charity documented abuses of Pakistan’s blasphemy law.

“This is a great day for the respect of human rights, for religious freedom and for justice,” national director of Aid to the Church in Need Canada Marie-Claude Lalonde said in a release.

But Lalonde noted that 187 other Pakistani Christians remain in prison on blasphemy charges. Pakistan is one of 38 countries Aid to the Church in Need has highlighted for significant and persistent violations of religious freedom in its 2018 “Report on Religious Freedom.”

“The blasphemy law in Pakistan is particularly heinous because the penalty is so severe — I mean, it’s death,” said Bennett.

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