Supporters of Pakistani Christian Asia Bibi have welcomed news that the Australian Government is open to offering her asylum.
Reports emerged last weekend that Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said Australia would facilitate bringing the mother of five to Australia in the event that talks currently underway with Canada to accept her there fail.
See related story: Asia Bibi released, under heavy guard
The Catholic Weekly was unable to confirm the offer of asylum and whether it also extended to Bibi’s family, with a Department of Home Affairs spokesperson saying the Department “is aware of this matter but is unable to comment on individual cases”.
However the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) says it has received confirmation from Government sources that Asia Bibi and her family will be offered asylum.
“This is momentous news for all who have lobbied so hard and so long for Asia Bibi,” said ACL managing director Martyn Iles.
“It will be a fitting end to nearly a decade of persecution and the prospect of death by hanging, all on baseless accusations of blasphemy.”
Wilson Chowdhry, one of the leaders of the British Christian Pakistani Association who are in the country on a 10-day visit to Sydney and Canberra, told The Catholic Weekly an offer was an “important step”.
The association has been supporting Bibi’s legal defence and is now working to secure her safe passage out of Pakistan.
“I’m sure it’s not a pseudo-offer and that Australia will jump in if Canada does not take her,” he said.
“Whether or not Asia Bibi ends up here, the fact that Western nations have offered solidarity through offers of asylum [shows] that we will not be cowed by those who espouse terrorism and extremism,” he added.
“It was quite heartbreaking and an enduring shame that Britain is so fearful of civil unrest in the country or attacks on embassies [that it has declined to offer her asylum there].”
The director of the Jesuit Refugee Service Australia, Carolina Gottardo, said that “if reports that Australia may offer Asia Bibi asylum are true, this is a very positive development.
“This is a woman who is clearly at risk of being killed if she remains in Pakistan,” she added.
However, she said she wanted to remind the Government of the Christians and Muslims already in Australia’s care on Manus Island, Nauru, and onshore who continue to needlessly suffer, despite being at risk of torture or death if returned home.
“It is our government’s responsibility to offer them the protection they deserve as well,” she said.
The British Christian Pakistani Association led a march and rally in Sydney on 24 November which was attended by a number of representatives from the local Pakistani Christian community and members of the Australian Conservatives Party including its lead Senate candidate for NSW, Sophie York.
They marched from Parliament House to the Pakistani Consulate and presented their petition calling on western nations, in particular Britain, Canada, America and Australia, to provide safe asylum to Asia Bibi.
The petitions also highlighted ongoing concerns about the rights of Christians in Pakistan.
“This woman is exactly the sort of woman that we should be opening our arms to, she is the exemplary refugee,” said York.
Supporters are also calling for the Australian Government to reconsider the $49.6 million dollars of aid given to Pakistan while it retains a poor human rights record, and review Australia’s current risk profile for Pakistani Christians.
On 31 October Pakistan’s Supreme Court set aside the death sentence of Asia Bibi, a Catholic convicted of blasphemy, and ordered her release from prison.
However after widespread protests in Pakistan, its government agreed not to oppose a court petition seeking to have her acquittal reversed and banned her from leaving the country.