Many around the world rejoiced at the arrival in Rome last week of Mariam Ibrahim, accompanied by her husband and their two beautiful children. Many of us were moved at seeing the family’s meeting with Pope Francis. And while we rejoice that she and her family will be coming to the United States soon (her husband is an American citizen), we must remember that there are many who continue in chains for their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. On these pages over the past several years, I have written about the plight of one such victim of anti-Christian persecution, Asia Bibi. Asia Bibi is a Pakistani Christian woman who was sentenced to death under Pakistan’s notorious criminal code section 295(c), which prescribes the death penalty for “insulting” Mohammed and Islam. She is a Roman Catholic rural farm worker and mother of five. In June 2009, while working in the fields, she was sent to bring water for the other farm workers. Some of the Moslem workers refused to drink the water she brought as they considered water touched by Christians to be “unclean.” Her co-workers then complained to the authorities that she made derogatory comments about Mohammed. What was the derogatory comment she purportedly made against Mohammed? The Moslem women claimed Asia Bibi said: “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 is illiterate, and is considered an uneducated woman, but she asked a deeply profound question. Islam teaches that one cannot know and experience assurance of eternal salvation. Of course, her hearers had no ready answer to her simple question. But six days after this incident, a violent mob came to her family’s home, damaged it, and assaulted and beat her and members of her family. In response, Pakistani police arrested her, and she spent more than one year in jail awaiting trial. Finally, in November 2010, The Honorable Judge Muhammed Naveed Iqbal sentenced her to death by hanging, and he fined her the equivalent of $1,100, a large sum in rural Pakistan. Her verdict was later upheld by the Lahore High Court. Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari refused to pardon her after large demonstrations were held against her. My readers may remember that several Pakistani government officials who publicly called for Asia Bibi’s release and the abolition of the Pakistan’s blasphemy law have been assassinated, including the Governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, who was murdered by his bodyguard. Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian member of Pakistan’s cabinet, was assassinated for speaking out on her behalf as well. Moreover, each time that a Christian villager is accused of blasphemy, Christian neighbors are forced to flee the area out of fear that they are next in line to be accused of the same “crime.”
Asia Bibi’s case is now up for further appeal by the High Court of Lahore, Pakistan. In fact, for the fifth time over a number of years, the hearing for her appeal didn’t happen. No reasons are ever given for the delay, and no new hearing dates are set. The excuses given for the delays have been varied; there have been sick judges and sick lawyers who couldn’t make it at the appointed day and hour. As you can well imagine, the government fears the people if she is released, and the government further fears that financial donors from the international community will cut off or curtail foreign aid if she is executed. Pakistan, an erstwhile ally of the United States in what used to be the war against terrorism, has received tens of billions of our tax dollars in foreign and military aid over just the past decade, and continues to receive large sums. Thus, with the moral courage of Pontius Pilate, the High Court judges find every excuse not to give Asia Bibi her day in court. And justice delayed is justice denied.
Mariam Ibrahim’s recent visit with His Holiness in Rome reminds me of a Christmas letter sent to Pope Francis by Asia Bibi last November. She thanked Pope Francis and all the churches praying for her and credited the prayers of God’s people for her survival after more than four years in prison. She wrote the following in pertinent part:
I am very grateful to all the churches that are praying for me and fighting for my freedom. If I am still alive, it is thanks to the strength that your prayers give me. I just want to trust the mercy of God, who can do everything, that all is possible. Only God will be able to free me. Holy Father, I want for you to accept my best wishes for the New Year. I know you pray for me with all your heart, and this gives me confidence that one day my freedom will be possible.
She expressed her desire to be in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome to pray with Pope Francis for Christmas 2014. Please pray for Asia Bibi and her family, and let us work together so that we can see her worshiping our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in Rome later this year.