Persecuted Christian Asia Bibi, who spent eight years on death row until her release last year, has reached Canada and is now reunited with her family.
David Turner, Director of Church in Chains in Ireland, described it as “an encouraging day for Christians in Pakistan, for Asia justice has finally been done, but there’s a lot more work to do for Christians in that country”.
There was widespread protests and violence when Mrs Bibi was found innocent of blasphemy in Pakistan six months ago. The government, citing fears for her safety, kept her in protective custody after extremist Islamist groups protested for three days and made death threats.
Mr Turner said: “In Pakistan it is a bittersweet moment for Asia Bibi because there is no prospect of her being able to return home and live a normal life in Pakistan. Such is the antagonism among many within the country for those who are accused under the blasphemy law.
“It would be a wonderful step forward if the Pakistani government took the opportunity to seek to reform those blasphemy laws.”
Mrs Bibi was jailed following false accusations she had insulted Muhammad almost a decade ago. Her lawyer, Saiful Malook, confirmed she has arrived in Canada today and is now reunited with her husband and two children. They fled Pakistan for asylum last year.
Pakistan’s Supreme Court acquitted Mrs Bibi after they found there was no evidence to support the allegation which was brought by Muslim villagers following a row about a cup of water in June 2009 during her work on a farm.
The incident highlights the harsh blasphemy laws that exist in Pakistan, and how they are used to persecute religious minorities.
Political parties such as Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP), whose sole aim is the punishment of blasphemy and keeping the country’s blasphemy laws which carry an automatic death penalty, were behind much of the protests and violence.
Mr Turner said the way the laws are framed lead to people being charged and found guilty “without proper evidence”. Mr Turner added: “As Asia begins a life in freedom and we rejoice with her and her family we’ll continue to pray and work on behalf of the many other innocent Christians who are still in prison under Pakistan’s blasphemy law.”
The Supreme Court judges, Asia Bibi’s family, her lawyer and anyone who spoke in her defence over the years faced death threats in the country. The governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, Salman Taseer, was assassinated by one of his bodyguards for speaking in her defence in 2011. Mr Taseer was shot 27 times.
Human rights organisations such as Aid to the Church in Need (ACN in Ireland) have been campaigning for Mrs Bibi’s release for years and have called to an end to the severe blasphemy laws, which they say are often used to settle personal vendettas.
The National Director of ACN Ireland Michael Kinsella previously told this paper: “Asia Bibi is by no means an outlier. This is incredibly common in Pakistan, where Christians are maligned, used as scapegoats, and face daily harassment.”
He described how Christians in the country are denied jobs, education, and proper legal recourse.
“Pakistan receives hundreds of millions of foreign funding from western democracies, and this ostensibly is to secure their commitment and cooperation in the fight against terrorism.
“But the question Ireland and other countries involved in committing such huge resources to countries like this need to ask is whether or not they actually are terrorising their own people,” he said.
Claiming that it is demonstrably the case that Pakistan is terrorising Christians, Mr Kinsella called on the Irish Government to urge Pakistan authorities to live up to their supposed values.