EXCLUSIVE: Asia Bibi “as strong as ever”

Catholic woman, Asia Bibi, who was recently acquitted after being accused of blasphemy 10 years ago. PHOTO: CNS

Asia Bibi is “as strong as ever,” and believes that “in the name of Jesus” she “will be free,” according to a priest who spoke with her after her acquittal for blasphemy was announced.

Recounting a remarkable tale of courage, the National Director of the Pakistani Catholic bishop’s National Commission for Justice and Peace, Fr Emmanuel Yousaf, told The Catholic Weekly the mother of five has complete confidence in God.

“Asia Bibi is someone of very, very strong faith,” Fr Yousaf said. “I spoke to her on the phone after the acquittal… We said a prayer together and she recited very beautifully the 23rd Psalm. The lady has very, very strong faith. This is how she survived in a very small cell, solitary, for ten years.”

He said she repeats constantly, “In the name of Jesus, I will be free.”

Fr Emmanuel Yousaf was interviewed by The Catholic Weekly when he was in Sydney recently. He is National Director of the National Commission for Justice and Peace in Pakistan. PHOTO: Alphonsus Fok

Fr Yousaf expressed hope that the Australian government would offer asylum to Asia, and asked Australian Catholics to pray for both her and for all persecuted Christians in Pakistan.

In his PBC role, Fr Yousaf intercedes on behalf of Catholics who have been accused under the country’s infamous blasphemy law which attracts the death sentence.

Asia Bibi—one of Pakistan’s lower-class Christians who face constant discrimination—was accused ten years ago of blaspheming against the Prophet Mohammed.

The accusation came after an argument with a group of Muslim women, who were fellow field workers.

The daughters of Asia Bibi, a Catholic accused of blasphemy, pose in 2010 with an image of their mother while standing outside their residence in Sheikhupura, Pakistan. PHOTO: CNS

She spent the last ten years in solitary confinement but was acquitted by Pakistan’s Supreme Court on 8 October this year. The announcement of her acquittal on 31 October caused three days of rioting in Pakistan by fundamentalists calling for her to receive the death penalty.

Her lawyer fled the country in fear for his life.

Those wanting to see Asia convicted and hanged have put forward a court petition, seeking to have her acquittal reversed.

Fr Yousaf is hopeful the petition will be dismissed. “God willing, I think that will be set aside also.”

Men protest in Lahore, Pakistan, on 31 October, after the Supreme Court acquitted Catholic woman Asia Bibi, who was accused of blasphemy. PHOTO: CNS

Asia and her husband are currently in a “safe place” in Pakistan, Fr Yousaf said.

He recently travelled to London with Asia’s husband and daughter to meet with Aid to the Church in Need, an international Catholic charity under papal jurisdiction that supports persecuted Christians around the world.

“The trauma is there, and that will take a long time [to recover from], but in listening to her she is as strong as ever,” Fr Yousaf said.

“She was telling me that she has been praying a lot and that God had listened to her prayers.”

Men protest in Lahore, Pakistan, on 31 October, after the Supreme Court acquitted Asia Bibi. PHOTO: CNS

According to Fr Yousaf, it was Asia who was encouraging her husband and daughter when they visited her last.

“Actually she was the one, they told us, to encourage them, a lot.” She told them, “Not to get worried but to pray. Pray for me and wherever you go ask the people to pray for me, that I will be free from this place.”

“She spoke with lots of courage and determination… I started praying and she at once started the 23rd Psalm, the Lord is my shepherd. It was so lovely and she recited the whole thing. It was beautiful.” Speaking directly to Catholics in Australia Fr Yousaf pleaded for prayers.

“I would ask the Church here to just pray for us because we are a persecuted Church. Our people have a very, very strong faith in spite of all the difficulties, all the persecution.”

Asia Bibi’s husband, Ashiq Masih, and daughter Eisham Ashiq, are pictured 5 October in St. Columba’s Church in Chester, England. PHOTO: CNS

“I’m asking the leadership here, the Church here, the Catholic Bishops Conference here, to please pray for us and also if they can put in a word with the government here, for Asia Bibi.”

He expressed disappointment that despite suggestions otherwise, the Australian government had not offered asylum to Asia Bibi.

“I wish they had offered but so far we have heard nothing.”

Fr Yousaf said the blasphemy law in Pakistan—where Muslims comprise 95 per cent of the population and Christians less than five per cent—is constantly misused, with both Christians and Muslims being falsely accused.

Fr Emmanuel Yousaf has expressed disappointment that the Australian government has not offered asylum to Asia Bibi. PHOTO: Alphonsus Fok

Conviction for blasphemy means death by hanging. “There is no other sentence,” Fr Yousaf said.

“We are trying to ask the government, please make changes to this law so nobody can misuse it.”

So much fear is generated in Pakistan because of the blasphemy law that people of all religious faiths are desperately seeking asylum elsewhere, he said.

Many have fled to countries which do not recognise refugee status, such as Malaysia, Thailand and Sri Lanka. “So these people can’t even work. They are in a very, very pathetic situation.”

He asked that the Australian government might also show mercy to Pakistanis who seek asylum.

“I request the government here, that please, if they can offer some asylum to the people, those who flee from the persecution.”

As Fr Yousaf prepared to fly back to Pakistan, he said he was planning to write to the Chief Justice as soon as he arrived about Asia Bibi’s situation.

He said since she has not seen four of her children for a decade, now, given her recent acquittal, she should be granted that desire.

“Let this woman celebrate Christmas together with her children … She has all the right. She has missed so many Christmases. Now she is acquitted, she has all the right. Justice demands that she can at least see her children.”

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