ACN News: Thursday, 23rd July 2015 – PAKISTAN
Pakistan expert welcomes latest developments concerning Christian woman convicted of blasphemy
By John Pontifex
A UK-based expert on Pakistan, who was a bishop near Lahore, has said there are now grounds for hoping that the death sentence will be overturned in the case of a Christian woman convicted for blasphemy and whose life has hung in the balance for nearly five years.
Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, who was the first Bishop of Rawind, said he was encouraged by yesterday’s (Wednesday, 22nd July) decision by Pakistan’s Supreme Court to grant a stay of execution for Asia Bibi to allow the case against her to be re-opened.
The Christian mother of five had been on death row since 2010 after being accused of blasphemy during a dispute over drinking water concerning a fellow factory worker.
The death penalty was upheld last October by the Lahore High Court but yesterday the Supreme Court suspended the sentence until the end of the appeal process.
Reacting to the news, Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, who holds both British and Pakistani citizenship and who was educated in Pakistan, told Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need: “This does provide an avenue for the whole case to be re-opened.
“There must be hopes that the conviction will be set aside.”
Bishop Nazir-Ali, who is now President of the Oxford Centre for Training, Research, Advocacy and Dialogue (OXTRAD), said he hoped the appeal process would not be delayed, noting reports of a sharp decline in Asia Bibi’s health – including vomiting blood and severe problems with her digestion.
The Anglican bishop, who after coming to the UK went on to become the Bishop of Rochester, pointed to concerns about the validity of the case against Asia who was accused of making derogatory remarks about the Muslim Prophet, Mohammed.
Bishop Nazir-Ali, who is an expert in Islam as well as a Christian theologian, said: “I cannot imagine how someone in her position could have said such things given the overwhelming dominance of the Muslim community in the area where she lived and worked.
“I hope the court will recognise this and set aside the conviction.”
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which form part of its penal code, prescribe a sentence of death for offences of disrespect to Mohammed and lifeimprisonment for desecration of the Qur’an.
But, amid widespread reports that the laws (295B and 295C) are abused, with people taking matters into their own hands or interfering with the legal process, Bishop Nazir-Ali said he hoped the Supreme Court’s response t the Asia Bibi case would ensure that Pakistan’s blasphemy legislation is properly enforced.
He said: “I also hope that there will be some deterrence of people who make allegations for their own ends and that of their community. “There are more and more people being accused of blasphemy. We need to end this cycle of misuse of the law for people’s own ends.”
“I call upon the government to introduce procedures that make such misuse impossible.”
He urged people to pray that the conviction against Asia Bibi will be overturned.
Bishop Nazir-Ali’s comments come after Paul Bhatti, leader of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance and brother of former Federal Minister for Minorities ShahbazBhatti, highlighted the significance of yesterday’s decision by the Supreme Court.
Speaking to Catholic news agency AsiaNews.it, he said: “We are confident and expect that she will be released in the near future.
“The decision is a positive step not only for her, but also for many other people accused of blasphemy.”
Both Mr Bhatti and Bishop Nazir-Ali said they knew of no cases in which the Supreme Court upheld a conviction against someone falsely accused of blasphemy.
Aid to the Church in Need is committed to helping Christians accused under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.
The charity works across the country providing pastoral aid – Mass stipends for priests, training for Christian teachers and catechists, Child’s Bibles and other catechetical materials, support for Sisters, construction of and repairs to churches, convents and parish centres.