The recent acquittal of Asia Bibi, a 53-year-old Christian who spent eight years on death row for ‘insulting the Prophet Muhammad’ sparked protests from hardline Islamists in Pakistan
The family of Asia Bibi, a Christian who was recently acquitted after spending eight years on death row for insulting the Prophet Muhammad, have said they are being stalked by Islamists calling for their murder.
Bibi was cleared of blasphemy by Pakistan’s Supreme Court three weeks ago, but has been forced to remain in protective custody ever since after the ruling prompted an outcry among ultra-religious Muslims calling for her execution.
Her family are also in hiding but are reportedly constantly on the move to avoid the band of extremists who are pursuing them and even going door-to-door with their photographs.
Her legal team and supporters are also in danger and although several countries – including Spain, France and Canda – have indicated a willingness to offer them asylum, nothing has yet materialized.
John Pontifex, of Aid to the Church in Need UK (ACN) who has supported Bibi since her blasphemy conviction in 2010, told the Guardian that the family is extremely frightened.
Supporters of different Islamic groups shout slogans during a protest against Asia Bibi during a rally to mark the Prophet Muhammad’s birth anniversary, in Karachi, Pakistan, 21 November 2018
Pakistani supporters of Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), a religious political party, chant slogans and gestures while waving the party falg during a protest following the Supreme Court decision to acquit Christian woman Asia Bibi of blasphemy
‘They have told me that mullahs had been reported in their neighbourhood going from house to house showing photos of family members on their phones, trying to hunt them down,’ he told the Guardian.
‘The family have had to move from place to place to avoid detection. Sometimes they can only operate after sundown. They have had to cover their faces when they go out in public.
‘They have had to remove the rosary that hangs from their car rear-view mirror for fear of attack.’
What is next: Ms Bibi freed from prison, but the family has said it is too dangerous for them to stay in Pakistan and they are being hunted door-to-door by hardliners
The Pakistani government has struck a deal with a fundamentalist Islamic party, under which the party would call off violent protests at her acquittal while a review of the court’s decision is taking place.
The deal has led to accusations of appeasement and capitulation being levelled at Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan.
‘There will be a war if they send Asia out of country,’ hardline Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) leader Cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi said after the deal was reached.
Pontifex told the Guardian that Bibi’s family were relying on their faith to get them through each day, and that they hope they might have a future one day outside Pakistan.
A Pakistani supporter of the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), a hardline religious party, holds an image of Christian woman Asia Bibi during a protest rally following the Supreme Court’s decision to acquit her
A total of 19 MPs and Peers, including former foreign secretary Boris Johnson, have written to Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt urging him to allow her to Britain, but the government has refused to answer questions on whether it will consider asylum.
Some reports suggest ministers are worried about a possible backlash from British Pakistani Muslims, though the The Muslim Council of Britain has strongly denied this.
Labour MP Mary Creagh, one of the signatories to the letter, said: ‘I think the world has been shocked by the awful treatment of Asia Bibi and her unjust imprisonment.
Ms Bibi’s husband Ashiq Masih, pictured with their daughter Eisham, has asked Donald Trump and Theresa May to grant the family asylum. They are constantly on the move as they are being hunted down by religious hardliners
‘Several countries have offered her asylum and it is a mark of shame that Britain has failed to do so given our large Pakistani community here and our historic ties.’
John Woodcock, an Independent MP on the home affairs select committee, said: ‘The UK should be proud to be a sanctuary for those being persecuted because of their religion so it would be appalling if Asia Bibi is genuinely being denied asylum because of fears she could be targeted by Islamist hardliners over here.’
The Muslim Council of Britain wrote on Twitter: ‘There are unfounded media reports that Pakistani national Asia Bibi is being denied asylum into the UK because of concerns from British Muslims.
The protests only subsided after Khan’s government made a deal with hardline Islamist that they could appeal her release, and that Ms Bibi would have to stay in the country
A supporter of a radical Islamic group stands guard as protesters block a main road to condemn a Supreme Court decision that acquitted Asia Bibi
‘We find such insinuations to be as nonsensical as they are divisive. We see no reason why Asia Bibi should be denied asylum into the UK.’
The allegations against Ms Bibi date back to 2009, when she was working in a field near her home village in Sheikhupura, Punjab and was asked to fetch water.
The Muslim women she was labouring with objected, saying that as a non-Muslim Ms Bibi was unfit to drink from the same water bowl as them.
Ms Bibi would later say that the women insulted her religion, to which she responded: ‘I believe in my religion and in Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for the sins of mankind. What did your Prophet Mohammed ever do to save mankind?’
Asia Bibi, 53, was sentenced to death in 2010, after being accused of insulting Islam during an argument over a water bowl with a group of Muslim women in Punjab
This prompted the Muslim women to go to a local imam and accuse Ms Bibi of blasphemy against the Prophet Mohammed.
Before Ms Bibi could be arrested on any official charges, a violent mob descended on their family home, and beat Ms Bibi up in front of her children.
The abuse was so violent, police were called to the scene, but after rescuing the mother-of-five, they arrested her and threw her in jail – and a year later she was convicted of blasphemy.
Blasphemy is a charge so sensitive in Pakistan that anyone even accused of insulting Islam risks a violent and bloody death at the hands of vigilantes.
The charge is punishable by a maximum penalty of death under legislation that rights groups say is routinely abused by religious extremists as well as ordinary Pakistanis to settle personal scores.
The law does not define what blasphemy constitutes, and evidence is often not reproduced in court for fear of committing a fresh offence.
Despite this, calls for reform of the blasphemy law have regularly been met with violence and rejected.