Only two years ago Asia Bibi was an illiterate Pakistani farm worker, a Christian mother of five children, living in a rural community in Pakistan. Today, she resides on death row, in a prison cell so small that her outstretched arm can with one motion touch the four walls that enclose her. Her husband and children are in hiding, and Asia herself is at the center of a firestorm of controversy about Pakistan’s blasphemy law.
It is for the crime of “blasphemy” against the Prophet Mohammed that Asia awaits death by hanging. Her accusers, the Muslim women she worked with on a farm in her hometown of Ittan Wali, say that she made a disparaging remark about the Prophet Mohammed during a dispute over drinking water. This charge Asia denies, but the mere allegation of her Muslim co-workers was enough for a local judge in Sheikhupura to sentence the Christian woman to death. That was one year ago, on November 8, 2010, the day Asia became the first woman to be sentenced to death under Pakistan’s controversial law.
Risks Faced by Minority Faiths
The sentence instantly garnered international attention. Opponents of Pakistan’s blasphemy law have long argued that it is used as a tool by Muslims in Pakistan to settle personal disputes against Christians, as any accusation of blasphemy is enough to land a powerless non-Muslim in prison – or worse, on the hangman’s noose.
Christians, Hindus, and other minority religions comprise less than 3 percent of Pakistan’s population, in a nation that is 97 percent Muslim, and home to numerous radical Islamist groups. The Muslim cleric of Bibi’s hometown has already assured his followers that if Pakistan fails to execute Asia Bibi, he will take the law into his own hands and kill her himself. Another cleric is offering a $6,000 reward to anyone who murders her. “Pakistan is more dangerous for Christians than ever before,” says Jerry Dykstra, media relations director at Open Doors, a Christian humanitarian agency.
A Day to Remember the Persecuted
It is for victims such as Asia Bibi that the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church (IDOP) exists. The day of prayer, according to the IDOP website, “is a time set apart for us to remember thousands of our Christian brothers and sisters around the world who suffer persecution.”
Godfrey Yogarajah, executive director of The Religious Liberty Commission of World Evangelical Alliance, says, “The International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church (IDOP) gives us the privilege of joining together with over half a million churches in 150 countries to pray for the suffering church.”
According to Joseph Grieboski, president of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, Christians face risks in numerous countries throughout the world. He says that since 1998 and the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act in Congress, “the status of religious liberty has significantly declined around the globe.”
Shariah Law on the Rise
Grieboski says that the plight of minority Christians throughout the Middle East became even less certain this past year with the advent of the Arab Spring, which some say is triggering more hard-line Muslim attacks against Christians and other minority faiths.
“We have seen a significant rise in attacks against Christians and the increased presence and power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt,” says Grieboski. He says that there is a move toward the establishment of Shariah law [Islamic law] in Tunisia, as well as “statements from the Libyan National Transition Council that Shariah will be the law of the land and that they intend to Islamize the country.”
Believers at Risk Throughout the World
Jerry Dykstra says that the murder of 24 Christians during what began as a peaceful protest in Cairo on October 9 is the “latest incident” of anti-Christian sentiment in Egypt, a country that has the largest Christian minority in the Middle East, at an estimated 10 million.
“Christians in the West need to pray that Egypt does not turn into another Iraq where thousands of Christians have fled into other countries in fear,” Dykstra says.
Open Doors is monitoring a developing situation in Nigeria, where Dykstra says that “the murder of Christians and burning of churches continues unabated in the north and central parts of the country.” He says that the Islamic extremist Boko Haram sect has “stepped up its attacks,” and that the violence has been “largely been ignored by the U.S. media.”
Of all of the under-reported stories of persecution throughout the world, Asia Bibi’s must be among the most heartbreaking. While her husband and young children hide, fearing for their lives, Asia lives day after day in the torturous solitude of prison, wondering whether her fate will be determined by the Islamic Republic of Pakistan or a radical Islamic cleric.
Speaking Out for the Oppressed
What can Christians do to alleviate the suffering of minority believers throughout the world? Jerry Dykstra says, “Pray.” He also encourages readers to “be informed on the status of Christians in restricted countries.” The annual Open Doors World Watch List of the 50 worst persecutors of Christians is released each year in January, and can be a resource for churches and individuals who wish to get involved in helping suffering believers.
Grieboski encourages readers to be active on the issue of persecution: “Call your members of Congress and Senators, call the State Department, call the White House and tell them that you will not stand for persecution, that you demand that the U.S. government take it job of protecting religious liberty seriously.” And finally, he says, “support the groups that fight the fight on a daily basis. Any small contribution or donation of time helps significantly the groups that battle religious discrimination and persecution.”
Organizations Helping the Persecuted Church
Kristin Butler is a contributing writer at Crosswalk.com, where she covers topics related to human rights, religious freedom and refugee resettlement. For further articles, visit her website at kristinbutler.net or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Publication date: November 10, 2011