Akbar and Romana Durrani with their three children Nahum, Sarah and Nimble. Photo by Michael Swan

Pakistan blasphemy law not going away: lawyer

  • October 4, 2019

Pakistan’s blasphemy law and the fanatic, fundamentalist politics behind it aren’t going away anytime soon, Asia Bibi’s first lawyer told The Catholic Register at a celebration of the 105th World Day of Migrants and Refugees in Toronto’s St. Philip Neri Church on Sept. 29.

Akbar Durrani became Asia Bibi’s defence attorney in 2009, arguing against a blasphemy charge targeting the former farm labourer and mother who wound up spending years on death row. By 2011, the death threats against the lawyer who defended her became so serious that he flew to the U.S., then crossed the border to claim refugee status in Canada.

If anything, Pakistan’s commitment to its blasphemy law, which carries the death sentence, has become more extreme than it was when Asia Bibi was first charged, Durrani said.

“A few years back you could talk about repealing the blasphemy law,” said Durraini, who no longer represents Bibi. “Right now, it seems there’s no way to repeal the law.”

The focus was on Pakistani Christian refugees at the World Day of Migrants and Refugees celebration in Toronto. The Archdiocese of Toronto has committed to sponsoring 18 Pakistani Christian refugee families stuck in Bangkok, Thailand. Sixty-five refugee families were interviewed in Bangkok by staff from the Office of Refugees, Archdiocese of Toronto in July. 

Almost every one of the Christian Bangkok refugee families was threatened with blasphemy charges in Pakistan. While the death sentence for blasphemy is rarely carried out in Pakistan, mobs frequently humiliate, harm  and even kill people who have been charged with blasphemy, as well as their families.

As in Asia Bibi’s case, demands that Christians convert to the majority Muslim religion are common. Bibi, whose final acquittal was made public by Pakistan’s Supreme Court in January, is now living in Canada with the assistance of Catholic sponsors. Her location is kept secret in light of continuing death threats.

So far eight dioceses across Canada have expressed an interest in sponsoring some of the 47 Bangkok families whose cases the Archdiocese of Toronto has verified and prepared, but fall beyond the 18 Toronto can sponsor this year.

As a refugee who did not come through the sponsorship system, but argued his own case before the Immigration and Refugee Board before sponsoring his own family in 2015, Durrani said he has never felt like a refugee in Canada. His wife Romana said her family immediately felt part of Canada.

“Because we can practice our religion here,” she said.

She is teaching with the Toronto Catholic District School Board. Grade 10 student Nahum Durrani and his sister Sarah in Grade 11 are enrolled at Senator O’Connor College School, while their older sister Nimble pursues political science at York University.

Akbar has been taking courses at the University of Toronto to adapt his legal training to Canada and plans to write the bar exam in the spring.

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