ROME – Saying they want to ask Pope Francis to do “everything he can” to secure the freedom of Asia Bibi, the Pakistani Catholic woman imprisoned in 2009 and sentenced to death for blasphemy, her husband and daughter said they remain “hopeful” about her situation heading into an audience today with the pontiff.
Nine years ago in Pakistan’s Punjab region, Asia Naurīn Bibi was accused of insulting the prophet Muhammed during an argument with farmers that arose from her drinking some water from a well, which she was prohibited from doing because she’s Christian. Today she is still in solitary confinement in a female prison in Multan, about an eight hours drive from her family.
“She’s all right,” said her husband, Ashiq Masih, in an interview with Crux. “She was a little bit sick but not psychologically. Still she has hope that she will maybe come out of jail and live with the family.”
Masih and their daughter Esham Ashiq are in Rome this week with the support of Aid to the Church in Need, a global papal foundation that supports persecuted Christians around the world, and after having met the city’s mayor Virginia Raggi, will have an audience with Francis at the Vatican on Saturday Feb. 24.
“We are very honored to see the Holy Father, Pope Francis. We are excited to see him. It would be a blessing for us and for Asia Bibi as well. We hope that with the prayer of the Holy Father, Pope Francis, Asia Bibi will be freed very soon,” Masih said.
“We want to ask the Holy Father to do as much as he can for the freedom of Asia Bibi,” he said.
During the Saturday meeting, Francis told Masih and Ashiq that “I think very often of your mother and I pray for her.” Ashiq told Francis that her mother had asked her to give him a kiss in her name.
On the same day of the audience at 6:00 p.m. local time, Rome’s Colosseum will be bathed in red light to raise awareness for the persecution of Christians all over the world. Civic, European and Church representatives will be present for the occasion in a show of support for what organizers call the “most important human right: Religious freedom.”
It’s part of a global initiative by Aid to the Church in Need that will include similar events at the same date and time in Iraq and Syria.
In January, the U.S. State Department placed Pakistan on a watchlist due to “severe violations of religious freedom,” and global rankings show that the Muslim-majority country has some of the most severe blasphemy laws in the world.
Asia Bibi has experienced the harshness of these laws on her own skin, since she became the first woman in Pakistan to be condemned to death by hanging for allegedly criticizing the prophet Muhammad.
Bibi has denied these charges vehemently before the courts. On November 11, 2010 the court excluded any mitigating circumstances for the case and found her guilty, forcing the family to appeal to the High Court in Lahore. In 2014 came the second disappointment, when the court confirmed the death penalty.
Since then, the Supreme Court has suspended the execution and the judgment has been left to the courts. Meanwhile the story of Bibi, an illiterate Catholic farmworker and mother, has become a figure of national debate in Pakistan, making the decision of the case not only judicial but also highly political.
“We have been waiting for the past eight years, and every hearing was not in favor of Asia Bibi’s freedom,” Masih said through a translator. “Still, we have hope in Jesus Christ, that Jesus Christ will help us and help Asia Bibi get out of jail very soon, because we are just struggling and struggling, and hopefully in a couple of months a hearing date will be fixed.”
Tensions in the country’s capital of Islamabad continue to rise, and fundamentalist groups have held several rallies calling for the hanging of Asia Bibi. Things have gotten so bad that the government had to issue a document stating it did not intend to change the blasphemy laws, and even mentioned Bibi’s case directly.
“Kill Asia Bibi” is a recurring chant in the city’s streets, local news outlets report, and there is even a $10,000 bounty for whoever kills her.
“We visited the supreme court in Pakistan last week, and we met with the registrar. We asked him to reschedule the hearing date of Asia Bibi because, at the moment, the situation is that Pakistanis are not supporting her, so I asked that they just hold on for a couple of days and we will see what we can do,” Masih said.
Despite the sentiment in the country, Bibi’s family continues to be optimistic about her return and expresses complete confidence in their faith.
“She will come back and live with the family,” her husband said.
Beyond being marginalized and persecuted by the vast majority of the country, Masih also said that he does not get support from the local Catholic community. “We don’t get any support, not even from the Church, not from the bishops, not from priests and not from the community as well,” he said.
Though many non-profit organizations in Pakistan claim to support the case of Asia Bibi and her family, he adds, “they are good for nothing.” Masih is grateful for the help issued from Europe and all over the world, but he added that this support is not reaching Bibi and her family.
Masih claims that he and his family must sustain the legal fees alone, and stated that “no one can support us from abroad.”
“The Church receives the funds for Asia Bibi and they ask us to go to the Church for interviews and all, but after the interviews they are not supporting us or Asia Bibi,” he said.
Despite this, Masih recognizes that the situation in Pakistan is difficult and that a part of those funds, in his opinion, are directed to help many others who live through a similar situation. Also, he adds, the “Church is not personally involved, especially openly, in the case of Asia Bibi, because a relationship with her is not safe for anyone.”
In 2011 the governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, who had expressed sympathy for Bibi’s case and began a plan to revise the blasphemy laws, was murdered in Islamabad by his bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri, who was later hanged.
Not long after, Shahbaz Bhatti, a minister for religious minorities and a Catholic, was murdered by extremists for trying to help Bibi.
“Whoever has a relationship with Asia Bibi could be killed,” Masih said, adding that people live in fear that they “might be next.”
As Bibi and her family await sentencing amid national turmoil, even international support appears to be flagging. For the past six months, five Italian senators in the European Union and the Christian Unity Party have attempted to pressure Pakistan into freeing Bibi and promoting religious freedom in order to be granted “GSP” status.
Generalized System of Preferences, or GSP, allows for duty free exports to the EU for developing countries, which gives a strong boost to these economies – around $6 billion in the case of Pakistan.
On Feb. 20, the EU granted Gps status to Pakistan and expressed satisfaction with the country’s implementation of 27 core European conventions, including the National Action Plan for Human Rights, without any conditions regarding Bibi’s status.
In this general context, the appeal to the pope for Bibi’s liberation comes at a crucial moment, when most legal, political or diplomatic outlets are gone. Back in 2010, Pope Benedict XVI released a statement calling for her release to no avail.
“I feel alone without my mother. I miss her very much,” said Bibi’s daughter Esham. “I always pray that my mother will soon come out of prison and live with me and the family in peace.”
In March of 2016, Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, formally invited Francis to visit the country. It remains to be seen if Saturday’s audience with Bibi’s family will encourage the pope to apply his political heft in yet another periphery of the world.