One pastor’s journey from life on the streets to the head of pro-democracy protests
On the night before her final hearing before Pakistan’s Supreme Court, Asia Bibi had a dream. “I saw in a dream that all the doors of the prison are open,” she described, “and I’m worrying that if the jail superintendent comes she will be very furious.”
Hope can burn from the faintest wick. For Bibi the dream was a fresh fire. A field worker who does not read and a mother of five, Bibi is in her late 40s or early 50s and has been jailed since 2009. From a dispute with two Muslim women, who alleged she blasphemed Islam after one asked Bibi to bring her water, she has been on death row.
Her children, including one who is mentally handicapped, have grown up without her. Pakistan has had four prime ministers while Bibi has been behind bars. And multiple courts upheld a death-by-hanging sentence in her case, which has been pending before Pakistan’s Supreme Court since July 2015.
But on the eve of an expected ruling in October, she told her attorney, Saiful Malook, “From my dream I am very, very certain that my appeal is going to be accepted and I am going to be free.” Then she said, “I have such a full faith in God that I have [a] strong feeling that nobody can hurt me.”
U.S. officials say the situation is too sensitive to talk about, but while they remain silent the hard-liners are winning.
To Malook, Bibi said, “I assure you, sir, you also don’t worry.”
The following day the Supreme Court ruled in her favor, saying she had been accused falsely and ordering her freed, but her ordeal was far from over. Islamic hard-liners sparked widespread protests, shutting down roads and services. Bibi was not guilty, but not free, and clearly needed to leave the country. On Nov. 7 authorities reportedly flew Bibi from the detention center in Punjab to Islamabad, where she remained in an undisclosed location. The government caved to the hard-liners, agreeing to review the Supreme Court’s decision for technical issues.
Malook told the story of Bibi’s dream at a church in the Netherlands, where he was forced to seek temporary shelter after threats against his own life. For offering to shelter him, the Netherlands faces threats too: On Nov. 13 Dutch officials had to close their embassy in Islamabad and withdraw staff over threats against Dutch diplomats.
The case already has become a watershed moment for Pakistan and the Muslim world, something like the 1979 Revolution in Iran. Hard-liners threaten Christians using the blasphemy laws, while their tactics threaten Pakistan’s democratic government. Two leading statesmen—Muslim Salman Taseer and Christian Shahbaz Bhatti—were assassinated in 2011 for defending Bibi.
The only thing more astonishing than the bravery and faith of Asia Bibi in the face of so much hatred and violence is the cowardice and retreat of nations more powerful than Pakistan. The United Kingdom granted shelter to those calling for the murder of Salman Rushdie and has allowed rallies parading the Hezbollah flag, but British leaders stayed silent on Bibi’s future.
The United States took in the very publicly threatened Russian Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Chinese democracy movement leader Wei Jingsheng, yet made no offer of asylum for Bibi. Privately U.S. officials say the situation is too sensitive to talk about, but while they remain silent the hard-liners are winning.
Besides wanting to kill Asia Bibi, Pakistan’s Islamist parties and their mullahs want to silence Western powers through fear and intimidation. They want to threaten violence in such a way that they get their way. Until Bibi is fully freed, they have made a sham of Pakistan’s rule of law and its court system. Unless the traditional protectors of freedom step forward in a public and profound way to offer safe passage, it will appear the greatest powers in the world can be lassoed by a jihadist-ruled street.
Weeks after a brave verdict, few are looking brave beside the farm worker and mother, Asia Bibi herself. Attorney Malook told the Dutch congregation: “I have not seen such a strong woman in my life, nor in any book story, who is behind the bars for more than nine years … and still can be so strong.”