A senior Pakistani official told reporters Monday that the government will not allow Asia Bibi, a Christian woman recently acquitted on false charges of blasphemy, to flee the country despite incessant calls from radical Islamist rioters for her death and that of her family.
The official insisted that Bibi will remain in captivity, though not in a prison, until the “finalization of the legal process,” despite Pakistan’s Supreme Court ordering her release. The Supreme Court is Pakistan’s court of last resort, yet the government brokered a deal with the radical Islamist Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) party granting them an extra appeal on the case over the Supreme Court’s ruling.
The TLP has organized violent riots demanding the death of Bibi, her family, the Supreme Court justices acquitting her, and Prime Minister Imran Khan since the ruling on October 31. The riots forced schools and businesses to shut down for three days before Khan’s government agreed to allow the TLP to appeal the Supreme Court ruling. No senior members of the TLP have faced legal repercussions for inciting violence.
The Pakistan newspaper Dawn quotes Federal Minister for Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony Pir Noorul Haq Qadri insisting on Monday that Bibi will not leave the country until the court reviews the TLP appeal. “Aasia Bibi is very much in Pakistan,” he confirmed, calling rumors she had fled “mere propaganda.”
“The review petition is with the Supreme Court and all of us should wait for the final verdict instead of resorting to violence on the roads,” Noor warned in an address to the Islamic Tahafuz-i-Namoos-i-Risalat (upholding the sanctity of Muhammad) conference. Noor insisted the government would defend the nation’s blasphemy law “on every forum.”
Noor went on to applaud Prime Minister Khan for threatening the Netherlands following attempts by lawmaker Geert Wilders to hold an exhibition of illustrations of Muhammad, which the Islamic faith prohibits. “Every Muslim is committed to the respect and finality of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) because this is an essential part of the faith,” Noor added.
The minister referenced the violence on the part of radical Islamists, applauding the government for taking no action against rioters.
“There are some people who want violence on the streets. They wanted the government to call the army or the Rangers in to control violence and spill blood in the process. But, the government did not want it to happen,” Noor concluded. “As Prime Minister Imran Khan underlined in his speech, the government wanted solution of all issues through dialogues.”
The federal government has yet to release any information regarding how much public and private property rioters destroyed following the Bibi ruling. Thousands gathered in Islamabad, Lahore, Karachi, and other major urban hubs to burn images of Bibi’s face and deface property in protest. Despite an end to the organized riots, Muslims throughout the country have reportedly continued their acts of violence, targeting Christians in their communities for public beatings.
On Monday, the Lahore High Court (LHC) dismissed an attempt by a concerned petitioner to file charges against the leadership of the TLP and another radical Islamist group, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), for “high treason” in calling for violence. The treason charge specifically referred to calls to murder the Supreme Court justices who ruled on Bibi’s case.
Islamist groups continue to spread anti-Christian propaganda, both in person and online, where some have accused Khan of being a puppet of the Vatican (Bibi is Roman Catholic).
Catholic leaders in Pakistan have objected to online cartoons showing Khan and senior government members in papal outfits, noting that such depictions are by definition blasphemous, though unlikely to trigger criminal charges as the blasphemy law only specifically refers to Islamic images and figures.
“t is blasphemous to dishonor our religious leader Pope Francis, the crucifix and the sacred garments used by our priests during mass” Sabir Michael, a Catholic human rights activist, told the Fides news agency.
Bibi was sentenced to death by hanging in 2010 after two colleagues accused her of insulting Muhammad without evidence. Insulting Muhammad personally is a crime punishable by death in the Pakistani legal code. After nearly a decade on death row, the Supreme Court overruled her sentence in October, asserting no evidence existed that she had spoken about Muhammad at all and accusing those who claimed that she had of blasphemy through lying.
Bibi’s family continues to apply for emergency asylum in the West. The Canadian government has expressed interest in helping her, while the government of Italy has stated it will do whatever it can to ensure her safety. The government of the UK has rejected her asylum request, allegedly concerned for its large Muslim population.