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Asia Bibi finds freedom

International | The Pakistani Christian mother chronicles her persecution and new life in Canada after blasphemy case
by Onize Ohikere
Posted 2/04/20, 06:01 pm

Prison guards chained Pakistani Christian Asia Bibi by her wrists and neck in a squalid cell while other prisoners taunted her, according to her newly published book.

“You already know my story through the media,” she said. “But you are far from understanding my daily life in prison or my new life.”

The woman whose dramatic release last year captured international attention detailed her experience for the first time in Enfin Libre! (Finally Free!), co-authored by French journalist Ann-Isabelle Tollet and released last week. The English translation is due out in September.

Bibi, a Catholic mother of five, spent eight years in Pakistan on death row for blasphemy against Islam following a 2009 argument when two Muslim women she worked with refused to drink water from the same container as her. A Pakistani court sentenced her to death by hanging in 2010 for insulting Islam’s Muhammad.

Despite her new freedom, Bibi emphasized that Pakistan’s repressive laws still keep many Christians under the same harsh conditions she suffered. She described how a long chain that dragged on the ground connected her bound wrists to her neck. The prison guards would occasionally tighten the iron collar around her neck with a huge nut.

“I became a prisoner of fanaticism,” she said in the book. “From my small windowless cell, I often wondered why Pakistan was targeting me.”

The guards weren’t the only ones who contributed to her torture. She said fellow prisoners mocked her as well: “I am startled by the cry of a woman. ‘To death!’ The other women join in. ‘Hanged!’ Hanged!’”

In November 2018, the Supreme Court of Pakistan overturned Bibi’s sentence. After the court upheld the decision in January despite a petition to overturn the acquittal, Islamist protesters brought Islamabad to a standstill, burning rickshaws and throwing their shoes at posters of officials.

Pakistani Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khan Khosa, who led the panel of judges that dismissed the petition, said in court that Bibi’s accusers committed perjury, noting fabricated evidence and contradictory statements from Islamic clerics. “The image of Islam we are showing the world gives me much grief and sorrow,” Khosa said.

Christians make up less than 1 percent of the population in Muslim-majority Pakistan. Open Doors USA’s most recent World Watch List ranked it as the fifth most difficult country for Christians to live in.

“Even with my freedom, the climate does not seem to have changed, and Christians can expect all kinds of reprisals,” Bibi said. “They live with this sword of Damocles over their head.”

Last week, the nation’s anti-terrorism court acquitted 42 Christians for participating in riots that killed two Muslim men after the bombing of two churches in the predominantly Christian Lahore neighborhood back in 2015.

Bibi now lives at an undisclosed location in Canada, where she has reunited with her immediate family.

Bibi struggles to accept she might never return to Pakistan.

“My heart broke when I had to leave without saying goodbye to my father or other members of the family,” she said. “Pakistan is my country. I love my country but I am in exile forever.”

Associated Press (file) Associated Press (file) A mass funeral for victims of attacks in Makurdi, Nigeria, in 2018

Central Nigeria records more armed attacks

Muslim herdsmen are suspected of killing at least 32 people and burning down a church building during two nights of attacks last week in central Nigeria’s Plateau state.

Armed attackers killed at least 15 people in the village of Kwatas on Jan. 26. The following evening, they killed 17 more people in two other villages. They also burned down the Church of Christ in Nations building, Morning Star News reported.

Plateau Gov. Simon Lalong condemned the attacks and called on security forces to find the perpetrators. “My heart again bleeds by this tragedy as lives of innocent citizens are cut short for no reason,” he said.

A spate of violence has targeted predominantly Christian villages in recent weeks as Islamic terrorists step up persecution. Environmental changes have pushed armed herdsmen, many of them Muslim, to search for new grazing pastures for their cattle, leading to violent clashes between them and mostly Christian farmers. Other regions of the country have seen an increase in insurgency and kidnappings.

On Saturday, church officials confirmed that attackers killed 18-year-old Michael Nnadi, who was abducted last month from a Catholic seminary in Kaduna. The attackers released three of his classmates who were taken at the same time. —O.O.

Getty Images/Photo by Peter Parks/AFP Getty Images/Photo by Peter Parks/AFP A mourner at a funeral for a leader of the underground Catholic Church in Shanghai in 2014

‘Persecuted even after death’

Christians in some Chinese provinces now face persecution at funeral services. New regulations passed in December in Wenzhou in Zhejiang province ban pastors from participating in funerals and limit the number of people allowed to read from the Bible or sing hymns “in a low voice.”

Other cities are adopting similar prohibitions. Last year, Jiaozuo police stopped a pastor from presiding over a funeral and accused participants of “spreading religious propaganda.”

“When my father died, village officials threatened to arrest us if we didn’t conduct a secular funeral,” a Christian villager in Gucheng said. “We did not dare to go against them. My father had been a believer for several decades. He is persecuted even after death.”

Another family in Wuhan learned in October that even state-sanctioned Three-Self Churches can’t hold religious funerals. The family planned a Christian service, but police officers interrupted and arrested the deceased’s daughter as she was praying. Authorities did not release her until after the burial took place without religious rituals.

As a public health measure to contain the spreading coronavirus epidemic, which started in Wuhan, officials have banned funerals for people who die from the disease. They must be cremated at the nearest facility, and no one is allowed to visit the body beforehand. The Chinese government urged family and friends to hold brief memorials and avoid large gatherings. —Julia A. Seymour

Associated Press/Photo by Najim Rahim (file) Associated Press/Photo by Najim Rahim (file) An employee of Doctors Without Borders at the site of a U.S. airstrike in Kunduz, Afghanistan

More airstrikes on Afghanistan

The United States in 2019 dropped the most bombs on Afghanistan since it started keeping records more than a decade ago.

According to figures released last week by the U.S. Africa Command, American warplanes dropped 7,423 bombs and other munitions on the country, an increase from 2018, when the military released 7,361 weapons.

The increased airstrikes led to more civilian casualties. The United Nations reported that the United States accounted for 468 of the 1,149 civilian deaths blamed on pro-government forces in the first three quarters of 2019.

Peace talks between the United States and the Taliban are limping along. U.S. President Donald Trump called off the talks in September over increased Taliban attacks but resumed negotiations a few months later. —O.O.

Getty Images/Photo by Filbert Rweyemamu/AFP Getty Images/Photo by Filbert Rweyemamu/AFP Mourners gather on Sunday in northern Tanzania after the previous day’s church stampede.

Tanzania church stampede

About 10,000 worshipers who gathered at a stadium in northern Tanzania on Saturday rushed to walk on “anointed oil,” triggering a stampede that left at least 20 dead and dozens injured. At least five of those killed were children, district commissioner Kippi Warioba said. Authorities expect the death toll to rise due to the large size of the crowd.

Pastor Boniface Mwamposa, a popular prosperity gospel preacher, had promised wealth and healing if worshippers walked on the oil. Home Affairs Minister George Simbachawene confirmed authorities detained Mwamposa at the airport as he tried to flee the country. Simbachawene accused the church of not taking enough precautions. He also said the government would tighten church registration requirements. —O.O.

Deadly violence continues in Congo

Suspected Islamic militants killed more than 60 people in multiple attacks last week in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is experiencing an uptick in violence that began late last year.

On Jan. 28, at least 36 people died in attacks on two villages in the eastern region of Beni. An Anglican pastor was killed in the village of Eringeti, and two days later, another 21 people died in attacks on four other towns within the same territory.

Several groups tracking the violence have reported more than 300 civilian deaths. The Allied Democratic Forces rebel group has committed more attacks since October, when it staged a counteroffensive against the army’s crackdown. The ADF is a Ugandan Islamist group that is also active in bordering Beni.

The Congolese government last week placed the death toll at 62 and said the army was “dismantling the networks of collaborators and other agents thanks to information provided by captured ADF fighters.” —O.O.

Onize Ohikere

Onize is WORLD's Africa reporter. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and earned a journalism degree from Minnesota State University-Moorhead. Onize resides in Abuja, Nigeria. Follow her on Twitter @onize_ohiks.

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