Asia Bibi’s sister holds a faded photograph of the condemned woman and her family.
And countless others she personifies.
Whoever originally uttered the much misattributed statement that the death of one is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic, it’s been often cited and reapplied for good reason. It fits the Twentieth Century and first decade of the Twenty-First.
So personalizing the threat to one endangered, vulnerable, persecuted woman, man or child personalizes and humanizes the ongoing daily, hourly plight of countless millions of others we don’t see and easily forget.
Nina Shea, Nina Director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, has been a frequent guest on my radio show for her exhaustive work in protecting endangered religious minorities around the world. She’s one of the forces behind Persecution Report. Look it over, read it and weep. It’s so much worse even than it appears there, because the administrators are too busy fighting to save lives to update a website.
It was from Nina that I first learned of Asia Bibi. Here’s an update she published.
On October 16, for the first time, an appeals court affirmed a death sentence for blasphemy meted out to a woman. A Christian mother of five, Asia Bibi was arrested in 2009 after fellow field hands complained that, during a dispute, she had insulted the prophet of Islam. No evidence was produced, because to repeat blasphemy is blasphemous. Similarly, anyone who defends an accused blasphemer risks being labeled a blasphemer; two officials who made appeals on Bibi’s behalf—Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab, and Shahbaz Bhatti, federal minister for minorities affairs—were assassinated in 2011. Bibi has one last legal recourse, an appeal to the federal Supreme Court, but now no public official dares speak up for her—or for any other blasphemy defendant.
Accusations of blasphemy are brought disproportionately against Pakistan’s Christians, some 2 percent of the population. Intent is not an element of the crime, and recent years have seen cases brought against illiterate, mentally disabled, and teenage Christians. Each case seems to heighten the sensitivities of the extremists and further fracture society. The flimsiest rumor of a Koran burning can spark hysteria ending in riots against entire Christian communities. Lahore’s St. Joseph Colony was torched last year in such a pogrom.
The American Center for Law and Justice relentlessly drove a social media campaign to save Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani’s life, which probably did, in the end. They have pursued the same aggressive campaign of awareness and engagement for Pastor Saeed Abedini (who is American, by the way) and Asia Bibi.
A committed Christian. A mother of five. A loving wife. A servant of all.
But will she also be a martyr?
That’s Asia Bibi. She’s been sentenced to death by hanging under Pakistan’s Shariah blasphemy law. She was targeted as a member of the sole Christian family in her small Pakistani village. She was falsely accused of “blasphemy” – for supposedly speaking against the prophet Muhammad.
Last week an appeals court in Lahore, Pakistan upheld her execution sentence.
Here’s how this valiant Christian woman describes her plight, in her own words:
I’m the victim of a cruel, collective injustice.
I’ve been locked up, handcuffed and chained, banished from the world and waiting to die. I don’t know how long I’ve got left to live. Every time my cell door opens my heart beats faster. My life is in God’s hands and I don’t know what’s going to happen to me. It’s a brutal, cruel existence. But I am innocent. I’m guilty only of being presumed guilty. I’m starting to wonder whether being a Christian in Pakistan today is not just a failing, or a mark against you, but actually a crime.
But though I’m kept in a tiny, windowless cell, I want my voice and my anger to be heard. I want the whole world to know that I’m going to be hanged for helping my neighbor. I’m guilty of having shown someone sympathy. What did I do wrong? I drank water from a well belonging to Muslim women, using “their” cup, in the burning heat of the midday sun…
It’s as simple and devastating as that. For five years, she’s been imprisoned on death row over a cup of water. But what’s really at issue here is her Christian faith.
To her radical Islamic community and under Shariah law in Pakistan, her Christian faith is her “crime.” It’s her death sentence.
Her family is in hiding, fearing for their lives. In addition to the death sentence, Asia Bibi has a price on her head. A radical cleric has implored the Taliban to carry out her execution sentence before the Pakistani government does. Two Pakistani government officials who have spoken out on her behalf are now dead, murdered in cold blood for standing up for her human rights.
This atrocity cannot stand. No one – anywhere – should ever be put to death because of their religious beliefs.
All of us who have the freedom to speak out have the responsibility to speak out. It’s incumbent upon all of us to demand her freedom.
Though she has one final appeal at Pakistan’s Supreme Court, it is often public pressure and not a legal argument that wins freedom in these cases.
Asia Bibi has made a final plea to the ‘international community’ we speak of so often but specify and scrutinize so little. Who are ‘they’ and why aren’t ‘they’ doing more in these cases? This case provides another chance to engage the radical forces behind these crimes against humanity.
From her prison cell in Multan, Asia Bibi has become a symbol of the struggle for religious freedom in the world.
With social media, blogs and Facebook posts and Twitter hashtags, elite media notwithstanding, her rescue should be a viral story. For crying out loud, it’s well past time to use all these means of global communication to spread awareness and demand human rights be upheld. Not knowing is not an excuse anymore.