Pakistan: ‘Asia Bibi jurisprudence’ gives hope to Christians facing blasphemy charges

ANNE-ISABELLE TOLLET was the first foreign journalist to alert the international community about the Asia Bibi affair. She set up the International Asia Bibi Committee that advocated for Asia Bibi’s acquittal. Documenting her nine-year ordeal on death row, Asia Bibi just published a book about her imprisonment. It was written in collaboration with Tollet, who spoke to Aid to the Church in Need:

Asia Bibi (l) and Anne IsabelleTollet (photo by François Thomas)

Has the Asia Bibi affair deeply divided Pakistani society, like some kind of Pakistani Dreyfus affair?
Yes, completely. However, Pakistanis are not evenly split over this case. The vast majority of Pakistanis are happy that this innocent woman avoided the death penalty. Radical Islamists who cry out for revenge are in the minority. But they make a lot more noise than the others. And we cannot blame the silent majority for not speaking out. People know that radicals are ready to do anything. They kill, they attack families. This is why it was so important for international media to take up her cause.

But didn’t media exposure put her in harm’s way?
Without the media to spread the word about Asia’s case, she would be dead by now, most likely murdered in prison. It is true though that we journalists turned her into a symbol for extremists to attack. One had to be skillful, to know how to remain silent when it was inappropriate to press her case too much. This is the thrust of the letter we wrote to Pope Francis, asking him to only intervene alongside his Muslim peers.

Does Asia Bibi realize that she has become a symbol?
She became aware of it after leaving prison and was flabbergasted. How could I, a modest farm worker, not to mention a Christian, become a world-famous personality? For her, it was also a burden that forced her into hiding. However, her case has been useful to Pakistanis to deal with the anti-blasphemy legislation. She has become a symbol of moral rectitude. Although she could have been released on the day of her arrest had she converted to Islam and abandoned her family, she remained true to her faith.

Is there then an “Asia Bibi jurisprudence?”
Absolutely yes. The anti-blasphemy legislation has not gone away. At present, there are other Asia Bibis in Pakistani jails. It is very hard for a Westerner to grasp the idea of what this legislation represents. It is a constant threat and can be used anytime to settle a dispute. The number of people officially listed as imprisoned as a result of this legislation seems paltry compared to reality. I don’t think we can get reliable numbers, but since the Supreme Court’s verdict acquitting Asia Bibi on Jan. 29, 2019, accusing someone of blasphemy can backfire on the accuser. That should significantly curb the abuse of this legislation. In terms of the media, Pakistani journalists now readily refer to Asia Bibi when a new case hits the headlines. They have realized the importance of the issue and it is becoming increasingly difficult to sweep blasphemy-related cases under the carpet.

What attitudes do Pakistani Christians have towards the Asia Bibi affair?
Christians represent a tiny minority in Pakistan: three million people out of a population of more than 200 million. They know they are an easy target for extremists, who also go after Muslims deemed too moderate. For this reason, Christians cannot openly rejoice at Asia Bibi’s release. However, they have closely followed the case as it unfolded and its outcome has brought them great hope.

—Thomas Oswald