THE Italian government has offered to grant asylum to Asia Bibi, the Christian Pakistani woman facing death threats after being acquitted of blasphemy charges last week (News, 2 November).
Her husband, Ashiq Masih, in hiding with the rest of the family, had initially 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.”
This week, he extended his plea to Italy, Aid to the Church in Need reported.
Mrs Bibi was released from jail in Punjabi city of Multan, on Thursday, but was flown to Islamabad where she remains in protective custody because of threats on her life. Rumours that she had fled the country were false, a spokesman for the Pakistan foreign office said on the same day.
Muslim hardliners, outraged at the Supreme Court’s decision, launched a wave of protest, including blocking motorways, stoning the police, and calling for Mrs Bibi, her lawyer, and the three judges to be executed.
Italy’s Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, Matteo Salvini, said this week: “I want women and children whose lives are at risk to be able to have a secure future, in our country or in other Western countries, so I will do everything humanly possible to guarantee that [for Mrs Bibi]. . .
“It is not permissible that in 2018 someone can risk losing their life for a . . . hypothesis of blasphemy.”
The Bishop of Bolton, the Rt Revd Mark Ashcroft, who chairs the Manchester diocese Lahore Link group, said on Wednesday: “We are very concerned for the safety of Asia Bibi and her family in particular, and the impact of the Pakistan government’s recent actions on the safety and security of all minority groups within Pakistan.
“We call upon the Pakistan government to uphold the rule of law and to ensure the safety of all their citizens; we also urge the UK Government to continue its efforts to press for the safety of Asia and her family.”
Mrs Bibi’s lawyer, Saif ul Malook, has left Pakistan in fear of his life. He said that he contacted UN officials in Islamabad after the protests swept the capital city, and was quickly flown to the Netherlands.
“I pressed them that I would not leave the country unless I get Asia out of the prison,” he told reporters. “I am not happy to be here without her, but everybody said that you are the prime target at the moment, and the whole world is taking care of Asia Bibi. They were of the view that I was the prime target to be killed, and that my life was in imminent danger.”
The government is said to have made a deal with the fundamentalist party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, which has been organising the unrest. The authorities have pledged that, if the hardliners call off the road blockages and protests, they will allow the extremists to file a legal challenge to the Supreme Court’s verdict, release several agitators who had been arrested, and block Mrs Bibi from leaving the country.
Speaking to the German broadcaster DW, Mr Masih said that this pact had “sent a shiver down my spine. . . My family is frightened, my relatives are frightened, and my friends are also frightened. . .
“It is wrong to set a precedent in which you pile pressure on to the judiciary. The current situation is very dangerous for us. We have no security, and are hiding here and there, frequently changing our location.
“My wife, Asia Bibi, has already suffered greatly. She has spent ten years in jail. My daughters were dying to see her free, but now this review petition will prolong her plight.”
The Bishop of Loughborough, Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani, who herself fled persecution in Iran as a teenager and came to the UK as a refugee, said on Wednesday: “The UK has a long and noble tradition of giving asylum to those seeking refuge from persecution.
“I urge the Government to respond positively to the desperate plea for sanctuary for Asia Bibi and her family. I’m aware there are many churches that support and assist refugees and asylum-seekers in all kinds of ways, and I want to encourage others, too, to consider how they might get involved.”