In my role as lead officer for the BPCA in Pakistan I often find myself travelling in dangerous areas in Pakistan, a country full of bandits, highwayman and insurgents. It might not seem much of a task till you realise I am a vulnerable 26 year old Christian women in a country where both my faith and gender single me out for discrimination, persecution and other unsavoury attacks. But meeting with Ashiq was important! This was yet another chance for the BPCA to continue to highlight the plight of Asia Bibi, in mainstream media.
On my journey from my home town of Rawalpindi to Lahore I reflected on the cruel predicament Asia has found herself in, simply for extending a hand of friendship. The details of her incident still shock me to the core. How can anyone serve a life sentence merely for offering a glass of water to a Muslim co-worker? The answer lies in the principle of untouchability a consequence of her adherence to the Christian faith. Though Asia thought she was drinking from a well, the perception of Muslim's was that she was defiling a source of clean water, infiltrating it with the sewage waste of a faith they deem unclean, despite it's pre-eminence as one of the Abrahamic texts so commonly lauded within their holy scripture the Quran.
After the woman who received water from Asia threw it over her and started to insult her and the Christian faith she upheld. Other Muslim women joined a throng that shouted abuse and beat Asia. In a fit of rage and disgust and no doubt huge outrage that her kindness had been met with such hatred, Asia uttered the fateful words that would deprive her of her freedom and the five children, she now barely meets. She said;
"My Jesus died for me, what did Muhammed do for you?"
Her fate was sealed, but she would not know this yet. She still had to fight for survival, as the women on the field told the Muslim men that Asia had blasphemed. the men beat her severely then took her to a storeroom and gang-raped her. They then took asia to her home to punish her family too for good measure and molested her daughters. Despite the savagery and brutality of the attack no other person was arrested. In the eyes of the law the evil words of Asia were deserving of a death sentence, a crime much more heinous! Asia has served over 5 years of her life sentence and survived various attempts to kill her.
I arrived at my destination and was by now really excited that I was going to meet with Ashiq, a man who exhibited great courage in agreeing to meet with me. This was the third time the BCPA had organised interviews with him. A previous interview with BBC Asia Network was aired in December, BBC Radio 4 aired an interview in January and now it was the turn of the 'Church Times,' probably the most influential Christian newspaper in the Anglican community. Red there article (click here).
After translating an interview for Madeleine Davies of the Church Time (click here),I took an opportunity to ask some questions of Ashiq Masih, for the BPCA.I asked Ashiq, what impact the loss of Asia Bibi, had on his family?
Ashiq Masih explained that he missed his wife every day, they had lived a very contented existence despite their poverty. He advised me that it was breaking his heart that they were being kept apart. He described the pain his children felt, they had had to grow up quickly without a mother to support them. the youngest had been only 10 when Asia was imprisoned. He said;
"My family and I have suffered great sorrow, the children saw their mum beaten before their eyes and then could not visit their mother for over a year, the security risk was phenomenal. We all miss her a lot especially the younger girls who have been bereft of the passion and guidance that only a mother can give. It has been hard for all of us."
I asked Ashiq what support he had received from the government of Pakistan?
Ashiq explained that the government of Pakistan had been extremely supportive. they had always encouraged Ashiq and his family and had provided a lot of security to keep his family from harm. He said;
"Governor Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti the former federal Minister of Minorities met with us and publicly declared Asia's innocence. They lost their lives speaking up for us and we are extremely grateful. They had great faith in the legal system of Pakistan and we fully believe the Supreme Court will release Asia Bibi on appeal. We believe in a mighty God who will set Asia free."
I asked Ashiq what conditions were like for Asia in prison.
Ashiq said; "I thank God Asia is fine, prison staff are extremely cooperative and caring and she has had no attempts on her life for a long while. She is allowed to pray and talks with God daily."
I asked if Asia's faith in God had been dented, as a consequence of her ongoing incarceration.
Ashiq clarified in no uncertain terms, that Asia is still very strong in her faith. He said; "Asia believes she will be set free and her face is unquestionably, unshakeable! She is extremely proud of her Christian faith and would never deny the God."
I asked Ashiq about the support he was getting from different organizations?
Ashiq replied; "We have been greatly enthused by the huge international support. Many people have taken up our banner and stood with us in the hour of our need. This support gave us great strength and we thank them all. I am highly disappointed with organizations that are making money out of wife's name and are not giving us a single penny."
I wanted to know if the family faced any persecution before the incident took place.
Ashiq spoke somberly of the life they spent being discriminated against, insulted and mocked in their home town, which was a very rural village, where only three Christian families lived. he said;
"Pakistani Christians know what it is like to carry a cross. We suffer great ignominy and have to learn to forgive daily. Christians are treated like the dirtiest creature."
I asked him to tell me his opinion on the Blasphemy laws of Pakistan?
Ashiq answered; "I think the blasphemy laws are being misused in Pakistan. People use them to settle personal grudges, so they are a weapon for the oppressor. the laws must be amended."
I asked what Ashiq felt the British government should do in regard to this case?Ashiq replied; "I want the British government to negotiate with the Pakistani government and sort out possible ways to free Asia. It has been almost six years for her in prison, how much longer must she stay locked up?
In closing I asked what life Asia can expect after being released?
Ashiq answered; "Asia cannot stay in Pakistan for a single second after her release, her enemies will kill her. I hope that the Pakistan government will protect my family when she is free and allow us to leave for a safer less hostile location. We have received offers of asylum in several western nations, and I will not regret leaving Pakistan the land of my ancestors, as we have seen too much animosity here. We will leave with no regrets."
On completion of the interview I was extremely sad to have to leave, I knew Ashiq would be travelling in the shadows to get home. A life of watchfulness and great fear is all he and his family will know until safe refuge is found in a new country. I prayed for Asia and her family several times on my journey home and I ask that you all pray for justice and freedom for a mother of five, who has been imprisoned far too long.
We have re-initiated our appeal for the family of Asia Bibi. We intend to pay for safe travel for the children to meet their mother in prison regularly, and to cover their general costs of living. This family has been through one of the most traumatic experiences any of us could ever imagine. Moreover their fight is not yet over.