Italy: A Nation United Behind Asia Bibi

Concert Seeks to "Bring Hope" to Imprisoned Pakistani Woman

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By Edward Pentin 

ROME, FEB. 3, 2011 (Zenit.org).- It's rare to have the Pope supported by the European Parliament in standing up for the rights of Christians, but that's what has happened with respect to the disturbing case of Asia Bibi. 

A 46-year-old Pakistani Christian mother of five, Bibi has been sentenced to death on blasphemy charges, heavily fined and forced to spend over a year in solitary confinement for allegedly insulting the prophet Muhammad. 

One of the nations that is leading calls on the Pakistani government for leniency is Italy. Last Saturday, Rome played host to a moving concert held in Bibi's honour, sponsored, among others, by the Community of Sant'Egidio, Pakistani Christians in Italy, and Religions for Peace, and held in the famous Franciscan-run church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli. 

The choir and orchestra of the German School of Rome, made up of musicians and choristers of all ages, performed Anton Bruckner's Mass in F-minor -- a fitting piece of music that conveys the certainty of faith. The concert's aim, the school's music director said in his introduction, was simply "to bring hope" to Asia Bibi. 

Bibi was working as a farmhand in June 2009 when she was asked to fetch water for some of her co-workers. She complied, but some of her Muslim colleagues refused to drink the water as they considered Christians to be "unclean." Some arguments ensued (there was already a running feud between Bibi and a neighbour over property damage), and witnesses maintain that Bibi verbally abused the two women, their religion, and the prophet Muhammad. 

A few days later, complaints were made to a cleric about these alleged derogatory comments, resulting in a mob coming to her house and beating her and members of her family. Bibi was rescued by the police but, under pressure from the crowd, they charged her under Section 295 C of the Pakistan Penal Code, the country's notorious anti-blasphemy law. In November last year, after spending more than a year in isolation in jail, a Pakistani judge sentenced Bibi to death by hanging and -- as if death wasn't punishment enough -- fined her Rs.100,000 ($1,100), a crippling burden for a peasant family. 

Distraught, her local pastor has said that during her months of incarceration Bibi has taken comfort in John Chapter 14, Verse 1: "Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in Me." 

International outcry

Many world leaders, meanwhile, have been appalled by the case. Benedict XVI issued an appeal Nov. 17 calling for the restitution of "full freedom" to Asia Bibi and expressing his "spiritual closeness" to her and her family. He said he was praying "for those who are in similar situations that their human dignity and their fundamental rights be fully respected" and a couple of months later called on Pakistan to repeal its anti-blasphemy law. His comments drew the ire of some extremists who charged him with interfering in Pakistan's internal affairs.

On Jan. 20, the European Parliament urged Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari to use his constitutional authority to pardon and immediately release Asia Bibi in a resolution adopted by the 736-seat assembly (although EU foreign ministers later failed to agree on a statement on the protection of religious minorities because they considered it "politically incorrect" to include a reference to "Christians" in the text).

One prominent figure within Pakistani politics also expressed his opposition, but with tragic consequences.

Salmaan Taseer, the Governor of Punjab and former ally of the late Benazir Bhutto, came to Bibi's defence, describing the anti-blasphemy law as a "black law." After meeting her in prison and pledging to take a petition to President Zadari, he said he felt sure the president "will forgive her." His words raised hopes among Bibi's family that she would be home for Christmas (they have only seen her five times since her arrest). 

But Taseer was assassinated on Jan. 4, gunned down by his own bodyguard as he was returning to his car after a lunch meeting with a friend. The murderer, Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, reportedly confessed to the killing, blaming Taseer's opposition to the blasphemy law. The assassination attracted worldwide condemnation and rocked Pakistan, perhaps more than any event since Bhutto's assassination in 2007. 

And yet so far, these worldwide appeals have gone unheeded, most probably for fear of reprisals. In the meantime, the controversy appears to be escalating. On Jan. 30, on a day of prayer and fasting in Pakistan for peace, some 40,000 Islamic militants took to the streets of Lahore to protest against pressure to repeal the law, with some protesters burning an effigy of the Pope, according to a Pakistani press report. By contrast, a special prayer vigil was held on the same day in Lahore's Franciscan church of St Mary. Joining the Archbishop of Lahore at the vigil were representatives from other Christian denominations as well as Hindu and Muslim leaders.

"Black Law"

Human rights groups have long campaigned for a repeal of the blasphemy law, and Amnesty International has been fighting to abolish it for 25 years. "We are pleased to have found new companions to re-launch [the campaign] with more force," Riccardo Noury of Amnesty told a Jan. 26 rally in Rome.

Human Rights Watch has argued the blasphemy laws are, in any case, out of step with rights guaranteed under Pakistan's constitution. "It's an obscene law," said the organization's spokesman Ali Hasan Dayan. "Essentially the blasphemy law is used as a tool of persecution and to settle other scores that are nothing to do with religion. It makes religious minorities particularly vulnerable because it's often used against them." 

Don Paolo Cristiano, Sant'Egidio's director of communications in Pakistan, noted at the Jan. 26 rally that the law was created to defend the religion but instead it is "abused and used to carry out personal vendettas." Pakistan has become notorious for its treatment of religious minorities and currently ranks 11th on the Open Doors World Watch list of nations where Christians are most persecuted. 

But one positive aspect of this case is how it has united figures across the political spectrum. Lorenzo Bodega, a senator of the anti-immigration Italian Northern League party, said his political group was supporting an initiative in support of Bibi because it "wanted to sensitize our government to grant asylum to this woman." There are "too many persecuted Christians," he said, "and we cannot be silent about this violence." 

The unifying aspect of the case along with the unifying power of music made last Saturday's concert a fitting and symbolic gesture -- one that its organizers hope will help to finally secure Bibi's release and, God willing, eventually repeal Pakistan's "black law."

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Edward Pentin is a freelance writer living in Rome. He can be reached at: epentin@zenit.org