By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN (BosNewsLife)– European legislators have visited Pakistan amid concerns that Christian Asia Bibi, a married mother of five, may become the first woman to be executed by the State on controversial charges of ‘blasphemy against Islam.’
Members of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR), the third largest group of parties in the European Parliament, met Pakistani government officials and Bibi’s family this week ahead of her December appeal hearing at Pakistan’s Supreme Court, said delegation leader Peter van Dalen. They also spoke with her lawyer, parliamentarians, and activists.
Van Dalen, who represents the Dutch ChristenUnion-SGP faction, was accompanied by Roman Catholic parliamentarians Tomasz Poreba from Poland and Slovakia’s Branislav Skripek, who chairs the European Christian Political Movement.
“Concretely we discussed with the Minister of Justice our proposals to change the blasphemy laws,” that led to her detention, Van Dalen confirmed in a diary sent to BosNewsLife. “As a first step, we want to see an end to the massive misuse of the legislation. One way to do that is to prosecute those who make false accusations in the same way as the (falsely) accused [person],” he added.
Despite the difficulties, “the lawyer of Asia Bibi told us that he was surprised about her mental situation,” Van Dalen also wrote. “If you would put me 30 days in jail I would become crazy. Asia is already years behind bars but is both mentally and physically in good condition. It’s a miracle,” he quoted her lawyer as saying.
‘JESUS CHRIST ALIVE’
Bibi, 48, has been in prison since 2009 after she reportedly told Muslim co-workers that Jesus Christ is alive. She made the remarks while working in the fields for a Muslim landowner, according to investigators.
“Our Christ sacrificed His life on the cross for our sins…Our Christ is alive,” Bibi reportedly said. She spoke amid a dispute with non-Christian colleagues when she attempted to drink water from a Muslim-owned well, Christians said.
Besides “insulting Prophet Muhammad” she was accused “of contaminating” the well by Muslims. She was charged with blasphemy and a lower court eventually sentenced her to death by hanging in 2010. After years of delays, the verdict was confirmed in October 2014.
Bibi appealed, and nearly two years later she was to appear in front of Pakistan’s Supreme Court. But the appeal was adjourned amid pressure from angry Muslims who packed the courtroom to demand her execution.
Citing “a conflict of interests” a judge later removed himself from the case because he sentenced former bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri to death for killing the governor of Punjab province. Governor Salmaan Taseer was killed in 2011 after he visited Bibi in jail and criticized Pakistan’s blasphemy legislation.
Following talks in Islamabad with officials and female legislators “in dresses that completely covered their face,” the European Union legislators were driven in armored vehicles through congested roads to meet Bibi’s family in Lahore, some 400 kilometers (250 miles) outside the national capital, Van Dalen told BosNewsLife.
‘READ YOUR BIBLE’
“We were welcomed by the daughter of Asia Bibi and her school class with the song: ‘Read your Bible, pray every day!’”, he recalled. “The Christian school in Lahore is next to Bibi’s home. The teachers told us that they appreciate that people from the West came to visit them.”
But while children smiled, Bibi’s husband wasn’t laughing, noticed Van Dalen.”I think that if your wife is spending years on death row on charges of alleged blasphemy, you laugh no longer,” the Dutch politician stressed.
Bibi’s defense attorney declined to speak publicly about Bibi’s chances, but lawyers of the “Human rights Commission in Lahore” questioned the charges against the Christian woman, Van Dalen explained.
“They recalled that the Supreme Court in Islamabad has often rejected verdicts by [lower] regional courts. If that’s the outcome in Asia Bibi’s case it would mean that pressure from the United States and the European Union has worked,” he said.
He added that the EU and business people continue to pay for Bibi’s defense efforts. “Asia Bibi cannot show her faith in the way she wants and is facing the death sentence for unclear reasons,” complained Van Dalen in separate remarks. “That should not happen.”
BISHOP URGES PRAYERS
Van Dalen expressed hope that the trip contributed to more pressure on Pakistan’s government to change the blasphemy laws and to improve the rights of minorities, including Christians.
At least 65 people, including Christians, have reportedly been murdered in Pakistan after being accused of blasphemy since 1990. Christians comprise roughly 3 percent of Pakistan’s 205 million people.
Van Dalen urged the government of heavily Islamic Pakistan to “abandon extremists and religious fanatics” and instead “improve education, oppose intolerance and strengthen the economy.”
He learned from Pakistani Christians that pressure by the EU’s parliament and others on Pakistan must continue.
Additionally, Lahore’s Archbishop Sebastian Shaw appealed for prayer, Van Dalen recalled. “The bishop said: ‘In part because of the attention from the EU things start to change here small step by small step. But it can and should go better and faster. For that to happen, daily prayer is necessary’.”