THE Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth, has supported calls to grant UK asylum to Asia Bibi, the Christian Pakistani woman who has faced death threats after being acquitted of blasphemy charges at the end of last month.
Dr Cocksworth, the C of E’s lead bishop on international affairs, said on Monday: “In common with Christians around the world, the Church of England has been deeply distressed by the case of Asia Bibi.
“We call on the government of Pakistan to ensure that the decision of the nation’s supreme court is upheld. It is important she is offered every protection as she and her family seek to rebuild their lives.”
He said he had written to Foreign Office minister, Lord Ahmad, “supporting the calls for Mrs Bibi and her family to be offered asylum in the UK”.
Last week, Mrs Bibi’s husband, Ashiq Masih, in hiding with the rest of the family, appealed to the UK for refuge. “I am requesting the Prime Minister of the UK help us, and as far as possible grant us freedom,” he said in a video message, which also appealed to the United States and Canada. “We are so under threat we are stuck in this house” (News, 8 November).
Wilson Chowdry, the chairman of the British Pakistani Christian Association, told The Sunday Telegraph that Mrs Bibi’s asylum claim had been denied because of fears of unrest in the UK, a statement that has not been verified.
He said: “Britain was concerned about potential unrest in the country, attacks on embassies and civilians. . .
“It does seem to me that Britain is now a country that is unsafe for those who may be tarred with an allegation of blasphemy. We are very aware that there are extremist elements in this country.”
The Muslim Council of Britain said that these were “unfounded media reports”. It added: “We see no reason why Asia Bibi should be denied asylum into the UK.”
A Home Office spokesman said on Tuesday that individual asylum cases were not routinely commented on.
At Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, the Prime Minister, Theresa May, told MPs that the Government’s “primary concern is for the safety and security of Asia Bibi and her family”.
Mrs May continued: “Obviously there is an issue for the Government and courts in Pakistan, and the Prime Minister, Imran Khan, has publicly supported the Supreme Court and promised to uphold the rule of law while providing continued protection for Asia Bibi. A number of countries are in discussion about providing a safe destination for her once the legal process is complete.”
She refused to comment on whether Mrs Bibi would be granted asylum in the UK.
Boris Johnson, the Conservative MP and former Foreign Secretary, wrote to the Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, urging the Government to grant asylum, the Daily Mail reported.
He wrote: “I am well aware, as a former foreign secretary, of the constant threat to our overseas missions but we cannot allow the threat of violence to deter us from doing the right thing.
“I do not think it is a dignified position for the UK, given our historic links with Pakistan and the extent of our influence there, to look to others to do what we are allegedly nervous to do ourselves.”
Another Conservative MP, Rehman Chisti, told the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday: “We have a moral obligation as the United Kingdom to give sanctuary to someone who’s been persecuted for their faith, but whose life is in grave danger. And that’s why I think it’s absolutely right and proper that we should give her asylum.”
Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister, said on Monday that Canada was in talks with Pakistan over granting her asylum.
He said: “We are in discussions with the Pakistani government. There is a delicate domestic context that we respect, which is why I don’t want to say any more about that, but I will remind people Canada is a welcoming country.”
Mrs Bibi was released from jail in the Punjabi city of Multan earlier this month, but was flown to Islamabad, where she remains in protective custody.
Muslim hardliners protested against her acquittal, blocking motorways and calling for her execution (News, 2 November).