A CONSERVATIVE MP, Rehman Chishti, who has campaigned for Asia Bibi to be granted asylum in the UK, has clashed with the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief over government refusals to meet members of her family when they visited the UK.
Asia Bibi, the Pakistani Roman Catholic farm worker acquitted of blasphemy charges last month (News, 2 November), is facing death threats from Islamist extremists. The RC charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has told reporters that vigilantes are going house-to-house looking for her. Mr Chishti cited the UK Government’s refusal to offer her asylum as one reason for his resignation as the Conservative vice-chair and trade envoy to Pakistan, two weeks ago.
Asia Bibi’s husband, Ashiq Masih, and her daughter Eisham Ashiq visited the UK in early October to speak at events organised by ACN, which had long campaigned for her release. Asia Bibi was acquitted only weeks later, but has been placed on a “no-exit” list after protests from extremists.
Mr Chishti, who has been working for Asia Bibi’s release with a former Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Revd Michael Nazir-Ali, who was born in Pakistan, told an audience of journalists, NGO workers, and parliamentarians — including the Freedom of Religion Envoy, Lord Ahmad — that when Asia Bibi’s husband and daughter visited the UK in October, he attempted to set up meetings with officials from the Foreign Office but no one would meet them.
Mr Chishti said that among those he approached were Lord Ahmad and the Minister for South Asia, Mark Field. Sources said that only one minister agreed to a meeting: Lord Bourne, Minister for Housing, Communities and Local Government, whose brief includes faith. Yet a charity worker who was with the family that day said that, after they had been through security at his offices, they were told that the meeting had been cancelled.
Challenging Lord Ahmad at the launch of a religious-freedom report by ACN on Thursday of last week, Mr Chishti said: “What broke my heart — when the family met with me, I rang up different government ministers to say, ‘Would you meet the family in private, give somebody hope?’”
He acknowledged that ministers might have had reservations about having a meeting with the family, in case it was reported in the media while the Pakistani Supreme Court was still considering whether to acquit Asia Bibi, which could be seen as the UK’s trying to influence its decision.
But he suggested: “You could meet the family in private. You could — but nobody from the Government did.” He added that, when he had to tell the family that the meeting was cancelled, “the young daughter had tears in her eyes.” He then asked whether Britain would offer her asylum.
The crossbench peer and religious-freedom campaigner Baroness Cox, who was with the family at the time, told the audience that she “witnessed their anguish” when they were informed that the meeting would not go ahead.
Responding to Mr Chishti, Lord Ahmad declined to say whether Britain would offer asylum. “Whatever happened in the summer in terms of not meeting her, I certainly remain very committed to meeting with representatives of the Pakistani Christian community and members of her family.” He insisted that the Government was doing “all we can”, and was working with the Pakistani authorities to ensure Asia Bibi’s protection in Pakistan, and with “like-minded countries” to support her wherever she sought asylum.
It is understood that the Foreign Office officials approached by Mr Chishti may have had diary clashes or been out of the country when he tried to arrange meetings. The Foreign Office said in a statement: “As the Prime Minister has said, our primary concern is for the safety and security of Asia Bibi and her family, and we want to see a swift resolution of the situation. A number of countries are in discussions about providing a safe destination once the legal process is complete and it wouldn’t be right to comment on proposals at this stage.”
Australia has said that it would offer asylum if talks between Pakistan and Canada failed. A British-government source confirmed that there was “absolutely a genuine concern for her safety” if Asia Bibi were brought to the UK, in case any radical Muslims in the British Pakistani community were incited to violence against her by extremists in Pakistan.
A trustee of ACN, Lord Alton, said, however, that the Government should offer Asia Bibi asylum “as a point of principle”, even if she preferred to relocate to a country with a larger Pakistani Christian community. He said that not speaking up for her made Britain look “cowed”.
Lord Ahmad said that Asia Bibi’s circumstances had a personal resonance for him. “There are members of my own community, indeed my own family, who are currently being held on those very reasons of trumped-up blasphemy charges in Pakistan.” The Ahmadiyya community, to which the peer belongs, is classed as non-Muslim by the Pakistani government.
Lord Ahmad also suggested that the Government was going to take fresh steps to tackle religious extremism at home. “We need to get stronger ensuring that those people who come to our country who use the very freedoms and liberties and openness and democracy that we have, and then use it to sprout extremist ideology, who instil hate and fuel hate and incite violence against others — there’s a simple message to that: you are not welcome. And I assure you, across Government we are looking to strengthen our role in this respect.”
He said that he “agreed in principle” with a suggestion from Lady Cox that the Government rethink its aid to Pakistan. The Department for International Development sends more than £300 million a year to Pakistan in aid, such as for education support; yet religious-freedom campaigners say that school textbooks continue to contain hate speech towards non-Muslims.
The peer continued: “What I believe now needs to happen is a qualification of that support, in terms of what is being taught and who is doing the teaching, and that is something that should be a guiding principle for what we do across the world.”
The ACN’s biennial report, Religious Freedom in the World, warned of a rise in “ultra-nationalism” in countries such as India that branded minorities a threat to the state, and a “curtain of indifference, behind which vulnerable minorities suffer, their plight ignored by a religiously illiterate West”.
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