There are few mornings when one wakes up to such glorious news. Asia Bibi, the young Christian woman who was imprisoned and sentenced to be hanged in Pakistan eight years ago for alleged blasphemy against Mohammed, has had her case overturned by Pakistan’s supreme court. “Her conviction is set aside and she is to be relieved forthwith if not required in other charges,” said Chief Justice Saqib Nisar. The prosecution’s evidence, the judges determined, “was nothing short of concoction incarnate”.
“It is ironical that in the Arabic language the appellant’s name Asia means ‘sinful’,” the judgment continues, “but in the circumstances of the present case she appears to be a person, in the words of Shakespeare’s King Lear, ‘more sinned against than sinning’.” And so she is free to sing like a bird in a cage.
“I can’t believe what I am hearing, will I go out now? Will they let me out, really?” the BBC quotes Asia Bibi as responding when she heard the news. But she is free at last, and free indeed.
The young farm-worker had offended her Muslim fellow farm-hands by taking a sip of water from a cup she had fetched for them on a hot day. She was permitted to serve them, but not to share water with them. The only restitution for the offence, they determined, was for her to convert to Islam. She refused, and so the mob decreed that she had offended their prophet, Mohammed. She was subsequently convicted by the courts on the evidence of flimsy, contradictory testimony, and has since pent eight years in prison, mostly in solitary confinement, awaiting the noose. When the governor of Punjab province, Salmaan Taseer, spoke in support of her acquittal, he was shot by his bodyguard. When Shabaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s Minorities Minister and a Christian, took up her case, he too was assassinated. “We feel very insecure,” said Bhatti’s brother in law, Yousaf Nishan. “In this society you can’t open your mouth, even if you want to say something good, because you’re afraid who you might offend.”
The offended Muslim mob has bayed for Asia Bibi to swing for eight long years, and they are not happy with today’s judgment. Protests have already erupted in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi. The vigilantes are baying for blood: Mohammed wants vengeance, and somebody must pay. Asia Bibi has been freed from prison, but she is by no means safe. Nor is her lawyer Saiful Malook. Nor is Chief Justice Saqib Nisar, who read the ruling to release her. In fact, all the judges involved in the acquittal have received death threats. It is incumbent upon Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan to ensure that security is reinforced to guard all those in danger (that is, security which isn’t likely to shoot those they are protecting), and Asia Bibi must be granted immediate safe passage and asylum – here in the UK, if she wants it. In fact, Sajid Javid ought to make an immediate offer of a plane and a safe refuge: there are few cases more deserving of compassion and consideration than this.
And the Church can give thanks that Asia Bibi, like the many thousands of Christians who have been persecuted or martyred before her, has never once contemplated her witness to the ways of Christ leading to armed revolt, like those who witness to the ways of Mohammed, but instead to the burning of a fiery furnace in public and political demonstration of a better way; the way of Christ; the willing assumption of suffering and self-sacrifice. By seeking peace and justice now – and doing so patiently and prayerfully for eight long years – the world witnesses her grace to those who persecute, and peace to the godforsaken and dehumanised who operate their systems of terror. Asia Bibi has lived in the last days and tasted the new creation. May her witness of suffering be an encouragement to the saints, and a political symbol in a world where Christians are increasingly crucified with Christ. Asia Bibi bears the mark of the true Church. May she be blessed a thousandfold.