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A Christian’s acquittal in Pakistan is fueling advocacy against “blasphemy”  

A Christian’s acquittal in Pakistan is fueling advocacy against “blasphemy”  

(Photo: Asia Bibi’s daughter is greeted by Pope Francis at The Vatican in 2015. Photo by Ignacio Arsuaga)

LAHORE, PAKISTAN – After the unprecedented acquittal of a Christian from blasphemy charges, Pakistan is bowing to pressure from hardline Islamist groups to ban her exit from the Muslim-majority country. Unconfirmed reports that Asia Bibi was flown to the Netherlands, many circulated on Christian media after some Pakistani news outlets misreported it on Thursday, were countered with reports from the Washington Post and CNN that Bibi was released from prison and moved to a safe location within Pakistan.

In an Oct. 31 judgment, Pakistan’s Supreme Court cleared Bibi, a Catholic, of insulting the Prophet in an argument with neighbors, saving her from execution and seemingly ending her eight years in prison.

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws give the death penalty for insulting the prophet Muhammed and have been criticized internationally for inhibiting free speech and religious freedom. For days after the announcement, fundamentalist Islamist groups protested in streets around the country, demanding an appeal before Bibi and her family, including five children, would be allowed to seek asylum in the West. Schools and many shops remained shut from the protesters blocking highways, some with signs reading, “Our Demand: Hang the Asia.”

Barelvi clerics’ extremism is a more serious challenge than the terrorist groups. It is easy for the government officials to identify terrorist groups and confront them, but Islamic clerics are the ones who sow the seeds of terrorism.
— Tufail Ahmad, a South Asia analyst and author

Then on Nov. 2, the government agreed to ban Bibi’s exit, and streets in Islamabad, the capital, returned to normal. The move has dampened the optimism many expressed after the acquittal, hoping for more religious freedom in Pakistan.

The blasphemy laws, which date back to 1986, are often misused to settle personal scores and punish religious minorities, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP). Charges can be brought on thin evidence.

Before the blasphemy law came into existence, according to media reports, there were six reported cases of blasphemy in 60 years. Since the current law was constituted there have been more than 4,000, and most accused are Muslim. Bibi was the first female non-Muslim to be charged.

Bibi’s neighbors accused her of “defamatory and sarcastic” remarks about the Prophet Muhammad during an altercation with three Muslim women who had refused to drink water Bibi offered because she is a low caste Christian. Bibi believes the blasphemy case was filed out of animosity.

The verdict infuses references from Islamic literature, beginning with Kalima Shahadat, an Islamic declaration of faith similar to the Nicene Creed in Christian liturgies. The ending with a hadith, or saying from the Prophet, warns the country.

“Beware! Whoever is cruel and hard on a non-Muslim minority, or curtails their rights or burdens them with more than they can bear, or takes anything from them against their free will; I (Prophet Muhammad) will complain against the person on the Day of Judgement,” the judges wrote.

The judgment also explains a lack of credible evidence to convict Bibi.

After the acquittal, Prime Minister Imran Khan addressed the nation firmly on state-run PTV, warning agitators not to clash with the state and supporting the Court’s decision. Critics of Khan commended him for taking a bold stance on Bibi’s acquittal.

Still, a leader of the far-right religious party, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), at the forefront of the protests against Bibi’s acquittal, has incited violence against the judges, the army chief of Pakistan and the government in a video posted on social media. “These three judges, according to Sharia, are liable to be killed,” Pir Afzal Qadri said. “If workers cannot have access to them, then their drivers or their security guards should kill them…Imran’s government should be thrown immediately.”

Most of TLP’s members are Barelvi Sunnis, a sect similar to the Deobandi faction of the Taliban and becoming the face of Pakistani extremism. On blasphemy, the Barelvi clerics agree with the Islamic State (ISIS), the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

Assassinations and threats against those wanting to amend the blasphemy law throughout Bibi’s high-profile case have become common and polarizing.

“Barelvi clerics' extremism is a more serious challenge than the terrorist groups,” Tufail Ahmad, a South Asia analyst and author, said. “It is easy for the government officials to identify terrorist groups and confront them, but Islamic clerics are the ones who sow the seeds of terrorism.

Most of TLP’s members are Barelvi Sunnis, a sect similar to the Deobandi faction of the Taliban and becoming the face of Pakistani extremism. On blasphemy, the Barelvi clerics agree with the Islamic State (ISIS), the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

“Barelvi clerics' extremism is a more serious challenge than the terrorist groups,” Tufail Ahmad, a South Asia analyst and author, said. “It is easy for the government officials to identify terrorist groups and confront them, but Islamic clerics are the ones who sow the seeds of terrorism.

The student Amir Cheema, who tried to kill a German newspaper editor in 2006 for publishing a cartoon of the Prophet, belonged to the Barelvi sect. After Cheema killed himself in a German jail, 30,000 people attended his funeral in Pakistan in the soaring heat, according to BBC. A Barelvi organization, Tanzeem Ahl-e-Sunnat, built a mausoleum over his grave as a mark of honor.

Assassinations and threats against those wanting to amend the blasphemy law throughout Bibi’s high-profile case have become common and polarizing. In 2011, the Pakistani governor Salman Taseer, known for his liberal views, was stepping into his car after lunching in an Islamabad market when 26 bullets tore him to the ground.

The shooter, Mumtaz Qadri, was Taseer’s own guard. Standing over Taseer’s body, Qadri threw down his gun and raised both hands for a victory shout, saying, “Allahu Akbar!” (God is great.) He then surrendered himself to the police present, who didn’t intervene during the shooting.

“Salman Taseer is a blasphemer, and this is the punishment for a blasphemer,” Qadri told a Pakistani news broadcaster, Dunya TV.

Before the killing, Taseer had made headlines for defending proposed amendments to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. He also had appealed for the pardon of Bibi and visited her in jail.

Since 1990, 62 people have been murdered over blasphemy allegations before their trial began.

Qadri’s own glorification (a mosque was named in his honor and has become popular to visit in Islamabad) shows the ongoing support for criminalizing blasphemous speech, even with a loose definition of what exactly is blasphemous. (If you repeat words of blasphemy, you commit blasphemy.)

Two months after Taseer’s assassination, the only Christian minister in a federal cabinet and a defender of Bibi, Shahbaz Bhatti, was also gunned down. He had criticized blasphemy laws, saying they were being misused to target religious minorities.

Though Pakistan inherited blasphemy laws from the British Raj who codified them in 1860, they were enacted in 1927 and hardened during a period of Islamization from 1977 to 1988.

In 1929, a young carpenter called Ghazi IIm-ud-Din, believed to be a Barelvi, killed a Hindu publisher in Lahore for publishing a controversial booklet about the Prophet Muhammmad. He was executed on blasphemy charges and is celebrated by many today as a martyr.

Since 1990, 62 people have been murdered over blasphemy allegations before their trial began, according to the Court’s judgement for Bibi. In 2017, a man was killed by a mob on a university campus for speaking out on the misuse of the blasphemy law.

Bibi will face an appeal process and possibly further trial, while her family tries to live in secrecy. Bibi’s husband pled in a video message for asylum in the UK, US or Canada. In the meantime, who will represent Bibi’s case going forward remains to be seen. Her previous lawyer fled to the Netherlands in fear of his life and filed an asylum application for Bibi, but the Dutch government said an application can only be made from within the Netherlands by Bibi herself, CNN reported.


This post has been updated to reflect Bibi’s release from jail and move within Pakistan.

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