Shagufta and Shafqat Emmanuel, a Catholic couple who lived in Mian Channu, a small town 250 km south of Lahore, Pakistan, were arrested on false charges of blasphemy in July 2013. After eight years in the death row, separated from each other and their four children, they were finally released on June 3, 2021 by the Lahore High Court. Free at last, Shagufta shares her story with Aid to the Church in Need (ACN-ACN).

“I was born into a very strong Christian family. I regularly attended mass and received communion, and I always wanted to go to catechism and say the rosary. My father and mother taught me and my six siblings to be strong in our faith and to be ready for any kind of sacrifice or persecution.

Most of the families in our village were Muslim, but there were also a good number of Christians. Relations with Muslims were very cordial. I remember playing with Muslim girls and visiting each other, exchanging greetings and sweets at Christmas and the end of Ramadan celebration. My brothers also had very good Muslim friends. I don’t remember any fights or arguments in the name of religion.

A few years after marrying Shafqat Emmanuel, we moved to Gojra where my husband had found a job. Tragically, he was crippled by a stray bullet while trying to break up a fight some 12 years ago. Life was tough after that, but we were lucky to find jobs at St. John’s High School in Gojra. After school hours, my husband used to fix cell phones to earn some extra money for family expenses.

Photo of the couple, before they were charged with blasphemy.

Then, one day in July 2013, we were gripped by terror when several police vans with dozens of police officers stopped at our house. They broke into our house and arrested me and my husband on charges of blasphemy for an offensive message about Muhammad sent through our cell phone’s SIM card. The phone, which was registered in my name, was also used by my husband. The incriminating message was written in English, a language that neither I nor my husband speak or read. We were taken into custody for one night and the next day we were transferred to prison.

Though innocent, they spent eight years on death row

In prison, we were tortured. The police told my husband that if he didn’t confess, they would rape me in front of him, so he confessed, even though we were both innocent.

“We stayed in prison for eight months before a judge found us guilty and sentenced us to death. Our lawyer was not allowed to finish his argument and neither of us was heard. I fainted when I heard this judgment of death. The sentence was a blow for us and for our family and shocked the whole Christian community in Pakistan and elsewhere.

Shafqat was transferred to Faisalabad prison, while I was placed in a death row cell in Multan. We were on death row for eight long years. You can imagine how hard it was for my children; at that time my sons were 13, 10 and 7 years old and my daughter was only 5 years old. They had to move constantly spending their time hiding from Muslim fundamentalists who threatened to attack them. They could only visit me every five or six months, for 20 to 30 minutes. I cried every day for not being with my children. My life was terrible and I kept thinking that one day my husband and I would hang.

Despite all this terrible nightmare, I never lost hope or faith. I prayed every day, without fail. I read the Bible and sang psalms and hymns in Urdu and Punjabi, and that comforted me. Since my husband and I were innocent, I never lost faith or hope that my Lord Jesus Christ – who conquered death and rose again on the third day – would deliver us and keep me from death.

Several times I was told that if I converted to Islam, my death sentence would be commuted to life in prison and I would eventually be released. I always said no. The Lord, the risen Jesus Christ, is my life and my Saviour. Jesus Christ sacrificed his life for me despite my sins. I will never change my religion and I will never convert to Islam. I’d rather be hanged than deny Jesus Christ.

Then divine intervention came and very loud voices were raised against our unjust trial and condemnation, in the European Parliament, in human rights organizations around the world, as well as in the Church Catholic Church and Aid to the Church in Need (ACN-ACN). We were prayed for our release and offered moral and spiritual support. My husband and I will always be grateful to everyone who supported us. Thanks very much! God bless you all!

For a time, Asia Bibi, who was also sentenced to death on false charges of blasphemy, was my neighbor on death row in Multan. Each time we met, we used to pray together, comfort each other, and renew our unshakable faith in Jesus Christ. At Christmas, we shared a cake with other prisoners, Muslims and Christians.

When I learned that Asia had been liberated, my heart filled with joy and I was convinced that one day I too would be liberated. Eventually it happened, and my husband and I were released. Unfortunately, like Asia Bibi, Shafqat and I, we were unable to stay in Pakistan with our family. We were forced to seek asylum elsewhere and move to another country because fanatics and Muslim extremists were determined to kill us if we stayed in Pakistan.

That said, we are very happy that a European country granted us asylum and that now our family is reunited. We are safe here and we are free to practice our religion.

I hope and pray that these false accusations of blasphemy, which are often made to settle personal scores, will stop in Pakistan and that those who are found guilty of falsely accusing others will be punished.

Glory and praise to my living Lord Jesus Christ, and to my merciful God, who is a God of justice. »