Release International welcomes the decision by Pakistan Supreme Court to uphold acquittal of Asia Bibi. Calls for Pakistan to protect Asia and Christian minority, review cases of 200 other Christians behind bars and repeal blasphemy laws.
Release International welcomes the decision by the Pakistan Supreme Court to uphold the acquittal of Asia Bibi on false charges of blasphemy. Release warns of possible backlash and calls on Pakistan to protect its Christian minority.
‘We are delighted that the Supreme Court has stood firm over its principled and courageous decision to throw out the false blasphemy charges against Asia Bibi,’ says Release CEO Paul Robinson. ‘Anything else would have been giving in to extremism and handing Pakistan over to mob rule.’
The decision, which ends Asia’s 10-year ordeal, was made amid tight security. It means she is now free to leave the country and seek asylum. Two of her daughters are reportedly already in Canada.
Says Paul Robinson: ‘The government of Pakistan must now follow the lead of its Supreme Court and do the right thing. The government must:
- guarantee Asia’s safety,
- it must safeguard the Christian minority against mob reprisals by stepping up security against any suggestion of rioting and violence,
- and it must urgently review the case against every other prisoner who has been accused and jailed for blasphemy.
‘Release partners in Pakistan say there are 218 other Christians who still face blasphemy charges – a disproportionate number of those accused. And when they are accused, individuals, families and entire communities face violence at the hands of vigilantes.’
The British Pakistani Christian Association believes nine out of ten Pakistanis still consider Asia Bibi to be a blasphemer, making her a target for assassination.
Adds Paul Robinson: ‘In the Asia Bibi case, the Supreme Court revealed what Release has been saying for years, that accusations of blasphemy can be malicious and built on lies, simply to settle scores. These blasphemy cases – and the blasphemy law itself – must now come under review.’
According to the BBC, since 1990 more than 70 people have been killed by lynch mobs after being accused of blasphemy. And Amnesty International describes a large increase in blasphemy cases since the 1980s: ‘According to [the National Commission for Justice and Peace] NCJP, a total of 633 Muslims, 494 Ahmadis, 187 Christians and 21 Hindus have been accused under various provisions on offences related to religion since 1987.’ Since that figure was compiled Release partners put the number of Christians higher at 218.
The influence of Islamist parties in Pakistan is growing.
Islamist parties are calling for a tightening of Sharia (Islamic law). At their most extreme, they are campaigning for a harder line against blasphemy. The Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP), is calling for blasphemers to be put to death. During the elections the party’s slogan was ‘Death to blasphemers’.
After the initial Supreme Court decision, TLP supporters flooded streets in several cities calling for Asia Bibi to be hanged and the government to be overthrown. After a long, tense standoff, the ringleaders were arrested.
TLP banners have depicted ‘holy warriors’ who have murdered alleged blasphemers. These include Mumtaz Qadri, the bodyguard who assassinated Punjab governor Salman Taseer after he called for the repeal of the country’s blasphemy laws.
In March 2011, the only Christian member of the cabinet was shot dead for backing his call to change the blasphemy laws. Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti had earlier received death threats for speaking out. Even to want to discuss the blasphemy laws was, it seemed, an act of blasphemy.
Prime Minister Imran Khan has since apparently nailed his colours to the mast over the blasphemy laws. He said, ‘We are standing with article 295c and will defend it.’ 295c is the blasphemy clause that mandates the death penalty for any ‘imputation, insinuation or innuendo’ against Islam’s prophet Mohammed.
Release International, which supports persecuted Christians in Pakistan and around the world, has long campaigned for the repeal of the blasphemy laws. These notorious laws are often used to target minorities and to take out rivals.
Few accused of blasphemy can live in safety, even if they are acquitted. Extremist vigilantes see it as their religious duty to put them to death.
Christians face harassment in Pakistan in a variety of ways. Hundreds of women and girls are abducted each year, and many are forced into marriages with Muslim men. Christians are harassed for wearing religious symbols and have been targeted by Islamic State terrorists and the Taliban. The most extreme case was the Lahore bombing in Easter 2016 of a children’s play area, frequented by Christians.
Release is training Christian leaders in Pakistan and teaching villagers to stand firm against persecution and discrimination. Release is also producing and distributing radio programmes and video materials.
Through its international network of missions Release International is active in some 30 countries around the world, supporting pastors, Christian prisoners and their families; supplying Christian literature and Bibles, and working for justice.