Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who spent nearly a decade on death row in Pakistan on blasphemy charges, will not be able to enjoy a free Christmas this year despite the nation’s Supreme Court acquitting her of all charges.
Bibi will be able to spend it with her family for the first time since her arrest in 2009, but the family will remain in hiding under strict government security to prevent Islamist mobs from finding and lynching them.
Pakistan has never executed anyone for blasphemy, despite insults targeting Muhammad carrying a mandatory death sentence. Mob lynchings of Christians accused of blasphemy are not uncommon, however, and Bibi’s acquittal in November triggered violent riots around the country and inspired roving gangs of Islamists to hunt for her door-to-door or attack neighborhood Christians unrelated to Bibi in retribution for her release.
Bibi and her family are seeking asylum in the West, though no particular country has confirmed any details of the process, fearing that information about her potential escape could once again trigger violence.
“Despite her joy at being free I cannot believe that Asia Bibi is feeling like much of a winner today,” Wilson Chowdhry, the head of the British Pakistani Christian Association (BPCA) noted in mid-December when the group observed that Bibi would spend the holiday in hiding in Pakistan. The BPCA, which advocates for the rights of Christians in Pakistan and often helps with asylum claims and does charity work for the community, was at the forefront of the effort to save Bibi’s life from angry mobs following her acquittal. “Especially as she remains under police protection in Pakistan at a secret location unable to even exit the room she is in for fear she will be instantly killed, while she is forced to await a Supreme court hearing of a petition in January calling for her acquittal to be quashed.”
The BPCA urged Christians to pray not just for Bibi, but for all Christians in the country who face elevated persecution during holidays like Christmas.
Pakistani officials released Bibi from prison in November after the Supreme Court overturned her death sentence in a scathing ruling that accused her accusers, not Bibi, of committing blasphemy and disrespecting Islam through lying. The Supreme Court is the court of last resort in Pakistan, legally making her acquittal definite. The violent Islamist Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) party responded to the acquittal with violent riots in Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore, and other major urban hubs, shutting down schools and businesses and engaging in millions of dollars of property destruction. Rioters demanded the execution of Bibi, the Supreme Court justices who freed her, and Prime Minister Imran Khan for being in charge of the country when the ruling came down.
In response, Khan’s Islamist government agreed to allow the TLP to appeal the Supreme Court decision, a move with no basis in Pakistani law, and place Bibi on a “no-exit” list to keep her from leaving the country. The move did not stop Islamist clerics from referring to Khan as a “Jew representative” who infiltrated Pakistan with orders from Israel.
Bibi and her family remain in a secret location, which few details of the process to free her from Pakistan have surfaced. Last week, the Pakistan Express Tribune quoted her attorney as stating that several Western countries, including the Netherlands, Germany, the United States, and France have communicated with her legal team to find a solution that sees her and her family leave the country.
Unable to access and kill Bibi herself, many TLP supporters took to the streets of their hometowns and assaulted known Christians in their communities. Police documented at least one instance of radical Islamists forming a roadblock and asking drivers their religion, making sure to drag the Christians out of their cars and beat them.
Observations from the National Catholic Reporter published last week suggests that Christians remain under attack over a month after the initial riots.
“We used to conduct carol singing in our neighborhood every Christmas,” one Christian from Karachi told the publication. “This year we are scared to use loudspeakers as some Muslims might complain.”
“Muslims are angry at us. They don’t want to see us celebrating,” another Christian lamented. A third said he refused to celebrate in public or take his family to Christian events featuring a bombing, riot, or other Islamist attacks