In France seeking asylum, Asia Bibi meets the public at last

ON A VISIT TO PARIS, Asia Bibi has requested political asylum in France. She spoke of her ordeal in an interview with the French office of Aid to the Church in Need, one of a lengthy series of meetings with journalists. “It is thanks to the media that I am still alive,” she stresses.

In fact, she owes the end of her personal Calvary to one French journalist in particular, Anne-Isabelle Tollet, whom she calls “her sister” and who has helped her with the publication of the book Enfin libre! (“Free at last!”) The autobiography tells the story of how a Pakistani Catholic peasant woman became a global icon of resistance to Islamic fundamentalism.

Asia Bibi

Accused of blasphemy by Muslim fellow workers in 2010, Asia Bibi spent nine years in prison on a death sentence, faced with the constant threat of execution. Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy laws are frequently invoked to settle scores .Often those accused have been lynched by enraged mobs or else they “disappear” or commit “suicide” in prison. The media attention for the case of Asia Bibi undoubtedly helped save her from this fate.

Finally acquitted on appeal by Pakistan’s Supreme Court Oct. 31, 2018, she was at last able – thanks to the international pressure– to escape the country for Canada on May 8, 2019. Now there exists a landmark legal precedent, a so-called “Asia Bibi law” which enables those accused of blasphemy to fight back against their accusers. The anti-blasphemy laws still exist unchanged in Pakistan, but at least there is now a greater risk for those using them to falsely accuse someone.

“I could never have imagined ever being famous,” Asia Bibi insists in her quiet, gentle voice. She tells of a happy childhood in her native Pakistan: “I used to play together with my Muslim neighbors; there was never any separation,” she recalls. Baptized at the age of eight, she never faced any difficulties in living her faith. Speaking of her religious heritage, she recalls the ancient roots of Christianity in Pakistan: “There have been Christians there for more than a thousand years.” However, as she grew up, she became aware of differences separating Christians and Muslims. She heard about attacks against Christians, including lynchings. There were also cases of Muslim men in search of a bride abducting young Christian women and forcibly “converting” them in order to marry them.

She also discovered that Muslims regarded Christians as “unclean.” It was on account of this belief that her life abruptly changed one extremely hot day, June 14, 2009. She was working alongside some Muslims, when she was told to go get some water. She obeyed, drawing up the water, and then drank a cup of water before taking it to the person who had asked for it. One of the women refused to drink from the container and charged that Asia had rendered the water “unclean.”

Asia Bibi defended herself, saying that she did not think that the Prophet Muhammad would agree. To which the woman replied that she had just committed a blasphemy! The consequence was prison for Asia, her family was forced to flee because of threats by fundamentalists, and she was sentenced to death by hanging. Yet, there is absolutely no anger in her when she recalls this devastating time in her life, only sadness and weariness.

She knows that she is by no means the only person to have been placed in this situation, and she wants to use her ability to speak out to help those who are still suffering from accusations of blasphemy in Pakistan. She becomes more animated, and her previously quiet voice becomes more confident and assured: “Throughout my imprisonment I held the hand of Christ. It is thanks to him that I managed to stay strong. So don’t be afraid!” Seeing this new force and conviction, one can certainly see the strength of this woman who has remained undefeated after ten years of great suffering. This is the woman who stubbornly refused to abandon her family or deny her faith—as she was urged to do after her arrest—in order to escape conviction.

She was forced to leave her country. However, she is hopeful that she will able to return there one day. “It is the country of my birth, I love Pakistan with all my heart,” she insists. Meanwhile, she wants to seek refuge in France. “I’ve met with a great deal of love here, and I think I will be happy with you,” she says.

—Thomas Oswald