Asia Bibi in France
An encounter with an icon
By Thomas Oswald for ACN International
Adapted by Amanda Bridget Griffin, ACN Canada
Published online February 28, 2020
Asia Bibi has requested political asylum while in France. This Pakistani Christian woman, whose fate ACN has followed closely since she was first sentenced in 2010, recently gave an interview to ACN France, Aid to the Church in Need’s national office in France.
Asia Bibi is visibly tired. Interviews and official meetings have taken up the few days she has spent in France. Nonetheless, she manages to smile for the photographers with their constantly clicking cameras and valiantly gives her consent for a the long succession of interview requests. “It is thanks to the media that I am still alive,” she insists.
Victim of an absurd law
In fact, she owes the end of her personal Calvary to one French journalist in particular, Anne-Isabelle Tollet, whom she calls “her sister” and who has helped her with the publication of the book Enfin libre! (Free at last! French edition published by éditions du Rocher – due to be published in Canada in April or May, in French). This autobiography relates how this Pakistani Catholic peasant woman has come to be a world icon of resistance to Islamic fundamentalism.
Accused of blasphemy by her Muslim neighbours, Asia Bibi spent nine years in prison on death row, faced with the constant threat of execution. Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy laws are frequently invoked simply as a means of settling scores between neighbours, and may result in the direst consequences. Often those accused have been lynched by enraged crowds or else “disappear” or commit “suicide” in prison. The media attention given to the case of Asia Bibi undoubtedly helped save her from such a fate.
Finally acquitted on appeal by Pakistan’s Supreme Court on October 31, 2018, Ms Bibi was at last able – thanks to international pressure and numerous different twists and turns in her case – to escape the country which held her prisoner for many long years – to find her freedom in Canada on May 8, 2019. Now, a landmark legal precedent has been set, a so-called “Asia Bibi Law” which enables those accused of blasphemy to fight back against their accusers. The anti-blasphemy laws still exist unchanged in Pakistan, but at least now exists a greater risk in using them to unjustly accuse an individual.
“We have been Christians there for over a thousand years”
“I could never have imagined ever being famous,” Asia Bibi insists in her quiet, gentle voice. She tells of a happy childhood in her native Pakistan: “I used to play together with my Muslim neighbours; there was never any separation,” she recalls nostalgically. Baptized at the age of eight, she never faced any difficulties in living her faith. Speaking of her religious heritage, she recalls the ancient roots of Christianity in Pakistan: “We have been Christians there for over 1,000 years.” However, as she grew up, she became aware of differences separating Christians and Muslims in her country. She heard people speak of attacks against Christians, some victims lynched by enraged crowds. There were also cases of Muslim men in search of a bride who might simply abduct a young Christian woman and forcibly “convert” her in order to marry her.
“There is absolutely no anger in her when she recalls this devastating time of trial in her life, only sadness and weariness.”
Christians seen as “unclean”
She also discovered that Muslims regarded Christians as “unclean.” It was on account of this belief in fact that her life abruptly changed on one extremely hot day, June 14, 2009. She was working with some Muslim neighbours when they told her to go and fetch some water. She obeyed, drawing up the water, and then drank a cup of water before taking it to the person who had asked for it. One of the women refused to drink from it, because she maintained that Asia had rendered the water “unclean.” Asia Bibi defended herself, saying that she did not think that the Prophet Muhammad would agree. To which the woman replied that she had just committed a blasphemy! The consequence was prison, her family forced to flee on account of threats by fundamentalists, and a sentence of death by hanging… It was a judicial saga that only reached its final, but happy, conclusion in 2019. There is absolutely no anger in her when she recalls this devastating time of trial in her life, only sadness and weariness.
Not the only one
But Asia also knows that she is by no means the only person to have been placed in this situation, and she wants to use the microphone that is held out to her to speak out on behalf of those who are still suffering from accusations of blasphemy in her home country. She becomes more animated as she speaks, and her previously quiet voice becomes more confident and assured: “Throughout my imprisonment I held the hand of Christ. It is thanks to him that I managed to stay strong. So don’t be afraid!” Seeing this new force and conviction, one can certainly see the strength of this woman who has remained undefeated after ten years of terrible trials. This is the woman who stubbornly refused to leave her family or deny her faith, as she was asked to do after her arrest, in order to escape conviction.
She has been forced to leave her country and yet she still retains the hope of being able to return again one day. “It is the country of my birth, I love Pakistan with all my heart!”she insists. Meanwhile, Asia Bibi hopes to be able to seek refuge in France. “I’ve been met with a great deal of love here, and I think I will be happy with you,” she says.
Below, a brief video testimonial with subtitles in French