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Are we forgetting Asia Bibi ?

The wave of terrorism that has hit Pakistan following the killing of Osama Bin Laden’s has left many around the world wondering what will come next.


Asia Bibi

It has not only cast a bad spell over US-Pakistani relations, but has also managed to sideline what was once considered to be 2010’s defining issues and 2011’s tragic and bitter realities: The status of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

Caught up in the world of espionage, the media and the authorities seem to have forgotten that a 45-year-old Pakistani woman is still being held in custody under a controversial blasphemy laws.

Apparently we have also forgotten about the savage murders of Salman Taseer, the Governor of Punjab, and the assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, who was the first Christian to serve in the Pakistani cabinet.

Collective silence over these slayings have shown the government’s incompetence to tackle these issues and it also exhibits their intolerance and inability to understand fully and recognized the importance of freedom of speech, moral values and the deprivation of basic human rights, which has led the common people to compromise even with the moderate opinions.


Mumtaz Qadri (left), the self-confessed killer of the governor, is embraced as he arrives at a court in Islamabad (Photo: EPA)

The Governor’s self-confesssed murderer, Mumtaz Qadri, his so-called bodyguard, shot him 26 times with a submachine gun at Kohsar Market, near his home in Islamabad.

He was formally indicted on February 15, 2011, but nothing has been done to curb the sentiments that caused him to act out in the first place.

The Pakistan government is silent, failing to acknowledge that anyone suggesting amendments to the blasphemy laws has been threatened into submission. Self-professed “activists,” prominent media persons and the exalted judiciary, too, seem to be focusing on “less controversial” issues.


Salman Taseer meets with Asia Bibi (in veil)

Salman Taseer’s daughter is now being threatened and told by extremists not to speak out against the blasphemy laws.

Shahbaz Bhatti, another high-profile voice who paid the ultimate price for opposing the blasphemy laws, was silenced in Islamabad on March 2, 2011, when he was gunned down by unknown gunmen. He had previously been threatened by Muslim militants for urging reform of the harsh blasphemy laws that impose the death penalty for insulting Islam, and for also standing up for Asia Bibi. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the assassination of the long-time minority’s activist.

Bhatti, 42, was leaving his home in the morning when an unknown gunman bombarded his vehicle with bullets in broad daylight. He was dead when he arrived at Shifa Hospital in Islamabad. Bhatti is usually accompanied by security guards, but he had told them on that day not to travel with him.

The probe still continues into Bhatti’s murder without any solid breakthrough. The brazen assassination of this courageous man has not only shocked the Pakistani nation, but also the whole world. In one of his last interactions with the media, he seemed ready and reconciled to his fate.


Shahbaz Bhatti’s coffin being carried by mourners

Both leaders had been very vocal in their opposition to the the blasphemy laws and they had been actively campaining for the release of Asia Bibi, the Christian woman accused of blasphemy and sentenced to death.

Politician Sherry Rehman had spoken up against the blasphemy laws and she was threatened. Who would be the next on the list?

Dr. Paul Bhatti, the brother of Shahbaz Bhatti, has now been appointed as the adviser to the Prime Minister for Minority Affairs, and enjoys the status of a federal minister.

The recent coalition between the Pakistan Peoples Party and the Pakistan Muslim League (PMLQ) has resulted in giving the portfolio for the Minister for Minority affairs to a member of PML Q and so Akram Masih Gill was appointed as the State Minister, a move that has created an uncertainty on the status of the adviser to the PM.

In an address to the Vatican diplomatic corps, Pope Benedict XVI urged religious tolerance, and in particular the repeal of blasphemy laws in Pakistan.

In another move, some 736 Parliamentarians from the European Union have signed a petition demanding that Pervez Musharraf, the President of Pakistan, use his constitutional powers and amend the blasphemy laws which many believe has been misused to settle personal vendettas.

Catherine Margaret Ashton, the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy of the European Union (EU) has also endorsed the petition.

Mr. Haroon Barkat Masih, chairman of the Masihi Foundation, a human rights organization that is leading the way in the Asia Bibi case said, “Asia Bibi is awaiting in her cell. She is weak and vulnerable but is regularly fasting and praying for the Christians and the current situation in Pakistan. Despite the current situation, she is hopeful, she is firm and unshakable in her faith.

There are great security concerns for Ms. Bibi due to post Bin Laden circumstances and the bounty announced by Imam Yusef Qureshi of Peshawar who has promised 500,000 rupees (around $5,837.03 USD) to anyone who kills Asia Bibi. Noting that this is contrary to the laws of Pakistan, the number of extra judicial killings in Punjab are the highest compared to any other province in Pakistan.

Asia Bibi had been physically sick for a while, as she remains in solitary confinement and gets raw material to cook and eat. Ashiq Masih visits her regularly and said that Bibi starts her day by reading from the Bible and praying.

“Her family anxiously awaits for her to come back home,” said Mr. Masih.”

Mr. Masih further stated, “The extremists are killing all the sane, rational elements in our society. Justice, charity, love for all and the acceptance for others, has totally vanished. People have developed a habit of seeing only a single dimension.

“We need to consider everyone’s opinions and views to promote a tolerant society which guarantees equal rights for all, regardless of their gender, color, creed, religion, race and age. We would encourage people to fight injustice and create harmony among diverse communities and also develop a sense of responsibility as well as working towards the eradication of poverty, a basic education for all, and freedom of practicing their own religion without a fear.”

It is time to embrace change here in Pakistani because it has become fashionable to condemn others who are not practicing the same faith or belief. I am afraid that a worst type of extremism is also developing not just here, but across the globe.

If we expect tolerance from people who have different beliefs, we have to also show tolerance towards them as well. When you allow religion to mix with the affairs of the state, this kind of barbarity is the result.

Religion has no place in the matters of the state. It is a private thing for every individual. The laws and policies of the state cannot be allowed to be taken over by religion; otherwise that nation will collapse into a sectarian disaster.

Rodrick Samson is a freelance journalist based in Pakistan.


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