Nine years. That is how long Asia Bibi has spent in prison and on death row for an alleged blasphemy – which she has always denied. It is also how old her daughter Eisham was, back in June 2009, when she witnessed an enraged crowd beating her mother. Now 18, she met with ACN on Saturday 13 October in London, accompanied by her father, Ashiq Masih.
"We last saw Asia on Monday 1st October, before coming to the United Kingdom. She is well, physically and spiritually", her husband, Ashiq Masih, told ACN on Saturday 13 October in London. "After being accused of blasphemy, she has suffered, her whole family has suffered, for almost 10 years now. But by the grace of God, we hope she will very soon be set free", he added.
Image: Eisham Bibi - Asia Bibi's daugher has been without her mother for 10 years.
Invited to visit the UK by ACN, Ashiq and Eisham Masih agreed to come and share the story of their wife and mother. « Asia Bibi has been in prison for almost 10 years now», Ashiq recalled. "It’s a terrible thing for a husband and for a child. We have come here today to bear witness, to speak up and be a voice for Asia Bibi, who has been falsely accused of blasphemy. She has asked me to urge you to remember her in your prayers, to pray that she may very soon be set free." Asia was accused of having "insulted" the Prophet Muhammad during an argument with two Muslim women from her village, who had refused to drink water from a glass that she had just used. Asia Bibi is the first woman to have been sentenced to death under Pakistan’s draconian anti-blasphemy laws.
Now that Pakistan’s Supreme Court, which is Asia Bibi’s last hope, has stated on Monday 8 October, that it intends to "reserve its decision for the moment", her family members remain, are determined to remain, resolutely optimistic. "We believe that the Supreme Court judges intend to find in her favour", they insist. It is a conviction that is bolstered by a solid legal case and also on the astounding and unwavering hope of this family, who confess that they draw their strength "from the Lord Jesus Christ, who hears the prayers of those who suffer".
Yet there are all too many reasons for despair for this family, who have been forced to live in hiding in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, where blasphemy is an extremely sensitive subject. Mere allegations of blasphemy regularly end up with the lynching of those accused, and Christians are frequently targeted, as a persecuted minority.
Ever since its statement on Monday 8 October, Islamist fundamentalists have been demanding that the Supreme Court carry out the sentence pronounced against Asia Bibi by the two lower courts, namely death by hanging. An absolute wave of violence has been unleashed on social networks: "If you free Asia Bibi, prepare yourselves for more Mumtaz Qatris", is their sinister threat. Mumtaz Qadri, who was hanged in 2016, was the man who assassinated Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, on 4 January 2011, for having publicly spoken up in defence of Asia Bibi and for criticising the anti-blasphemy laws in Pakistan. These laws were introduced by the British at the time when the British Indian Empire included what is today the country of Pakistan. Since 1986, under the dictatorship of General Zia ul-Haq (1977-1988), this controversial legislation has made blasphemy punishable by the death penalty.
"We cannot remain in Pakistan"
Besides, Ashiq is quite lucid in recognising that "everyone is afraid; everyone is facing threats – the supporters of Asia Bibi, her lawyers, her judges." Nevertheless, one can see that he is proud of living in Pakistan, among the Muslims, who represent almost 96% of the population. He goes on to add, "not all of them are in favour of the execution of Asia Bibi. There are many people who understand that we are suffering. But the extremists, and the fundamentalist organisations are also very numerous." Numerous, and extremely vindictive, as Father Emmanuel Yousaf, the president of the Justice and Peace commission of the Pakistani Catholic Bishops’ Conference, emphasises.
And so, it is with a heavy heart that Ashiq acknowledges that his family can no longer remain in Pakistan. And while he is not revealing the place of their exile, he nonetheless continues to trust in providence: "God will take care of Asia Bibi and her family. He will find us a peaceful place. God will choose for us." A peaceful place, from which her daughter Eisham is determined to continue her studies in law in order to become a barrister, and so to be able to help the poorest and those accused of blasphemy.