Men and boys protest in Karachi, Pakistan, Nov. 4, days after a court acquitted Asia Bibi. CNS photo/Shahzaib Akber, EPA

Success on Asia Bibi case only the beginning

  • May 15, 2019

The news of Asia Bibi’s arrival in Canada after more than eight years on death row in Pakistan set off celebrations in many corners of the world, but few could compare with the jubilation felt by a group of Canadian volunteers who have fought for years on her behalf.

“There’s great joy and relief,” Canadian Aid to Persecuted Christians spokesperson Nadeem Bhatti said after news broke of Bibi’s landing in Canada May 8. “The board members are going to celebrate today.”

But when the celebration is over, the group — which pestered governments, campaigned for Bibi’s freedom and made a home for her daughters while they awaited their mother’s arrival in Canada —will get right back to work.

“There isn’t just one Asia Bibi,” Bhatti said. “There are so many Asia Bibis back home. We have to continue working for our brothers and sisters, because there’s a huge need for that. The persecution across the world is rising.”

As Bibi is reunited with two of her daughters and her husband in Canada, there are still threats against her life by extremists in Pakistan, so Bhatti does not want to release any information that might hint at the Catholic woman’s whereabouts.

“I think we should avoid telling (where she is),” Bhatti said. “That’s the thing — we can’t talk freely.”

Global threats against Bibi’s life have not been withdrawn. One Islamic militant claimed in a video posted on the Internet a week after the news of Bibi landing in Canada that he had arrived in Canada to kill Bibi.

Bhatti has spent years working to bring Bibi to Canada, pleading her case with United Nations agencies, the Canadian government, American and British representatives. A Canadian bishop who has asked to remain nameless has worked with Bhatti and federal government officials to ensure Bibi’s family will be protected, cared for and helped to adjust to life in Canada.

Bhatti’s involvement began not long after Bibi was put on trial over a dispute the humble farm worker had with a group of Muslim co-workers over a drinking cup. When Bibi had brought a bucket of water and a cup to her fellow berry pickers, she was accused of polluting the cup because as a Christian she was unclean. From there, the argument turned to demands that Bibi convert to Islam. By the time a local Imam got involved, Bibi was accused of insulting the prophet Muhammed. She consistently and steadfastly denied the charge.

In October last year Pakistan’s Supreme Court found the testimony against Bibi too ridiculous to stand and acquitted her.

That decision sparked riots and then was upheld in a legal appeal. With Islamist politicians calling for her death, Pakistani authorities kept Bibi in a guarded, secret location until she could be removed to Canada. 

Bhatti and his fellow volunteers lobbied to make sure Bibi wouldn’t be forgotten.

“We were a strong pressure group. We kept on pushing them in Western news, asking when she’s coming,” Bhatti said.

Her arrival in Canada, five months after her last and final acquittal was announced in January — prompting another round of bloodthirsty riots — has been hailed around the world.

On the official U.S. State Department Twitter feed, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, “The United States welcomes the news that Asia Bibi has safely reunited with her family. The U.S. uniformly opposes blasphemy laws anywhere in the world, as they jeopardize the exercise of fundamental freedoms.”

“Asia Bibi’s nightmare is over. Thanks to the Canadian authorities for welcoming her and giving her the opportunity to start a new life,” tweeted European Parliament president Antonio Tajani. “We must defend Christians around the world persecuted merely for practising their faith.”

“This sad case highlights the plight of many Christians around the world. Canada has shown great compassion in its actions and should be congratulated,” said British politician Boris Johnson on his Twitter account.

The federal government has kept mum, with spokespeople for Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland emphasizing that the Canadian government’s priority is keeping Bibi and her family safe.

Amnesty International’s deputy South Asia director Omar Waraich used news of Bibi’s arrival in Canada to highlight the larger issue of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

“She should never have been imprisoned in the first place, let alone face the death penalty,” Waraich said in a press release. “That she then had to endure the repeated threats to her life, even after being acquitted, only compounds the injustice. This case illustrates the dangers of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and the urgent need to repeal them.”

Bibi’s arrival in Canada shouldn’t take the focus off the problem of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and the attendant death penalty, said Aid to the Church in Need Canada executive director Marie Claude Lalonde.

“We have to continue to raise awareness of the problem, on the particular situations just like the one of Asia Bibi,” Lalonde told The Catholic Register. “By doing that we will probably end up putting some pressure on the government (of Pakistan). Things might change. I’m confident that things can change, but things won’t change if we don’t talk about it. So we have to keep on talking about it — saying out loud that this is not acceptable.”

For the moment, Canadians are right to be proud of their tradition of extending asylum to refugees, Lalonde said. 

“We’ve been involved with many other cases with refugees. I think that’s a very positive aspect of Canada that of course we should continue,” she said.

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