Around the globe, Christians are rejoicing over the miraculous release of Pakistani Christian woman Asia Bibi. With Asia’s release comes the very real fear and threat of persecution of all Christians in Pakistan where Muslim extremists vehemently wage war against anyone or any group who turns from Islam. Here are five things you need to know about Asia Bibi’s case and why, more than ever before, the church in Pakistan needs our prayers.
Asia Bibi is a Christian woman in Pakistan freed from a death sentence.
Since her arrest in 2009, the Christian mother of five has spent her life in a Pakistani prison. In June 2010, she was convicted of blasphemy charges and sentenced to die. She has been waiting for eight years for an appeal hearing that was delayed repeatedly. Recently, Pakistan’s Supreme Court held a hearing and ultimately ordered her release, saying that the prosecution had categorically failed to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt. After nine years of prayers from Christians around the globe, Asia was freed on Oct. 31, 2018.
She was charged with violating Pakistan’s highly contentious blasphemy laws.
In June 2009, Asia was accused by Muslim co-workers of making derogatory remarks against the Prophet Muhammad and the Qur’an. Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are extremely controversial, often misused to settle petty vendettas and persecute religious minority groups. Charges are difficult to fight because the law does not define blasphemy. In recent years, the country, which is 96 percent Muslim, has seen a surge of accusations of insulting Islam. Since 1986 when the separate clause punishing blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad was inserted into the country’s penal code, at least 150 Christians, 564 Muslims, 459 Ahmadis and 21 Hindus have been jailed under blasphemy charges. Prior to 1986, only 14 cases pertaining to blasphemy were reported. The recommended penalty is death or life imprisonment.
Pakistan is on fire right now with Islamic extremism.
In the weeks leading up to the ruling, Islamic extremists group called for the deaths of Asia and the presiding Supreme court justices. Throughout the case, Muslim extremist groups have threatened and carried out violence. In March 2011, a government official who supported Asia’s case and publicly criticized the blasphemy laws was assassinated by a member of one such group. Now in light of the court’s ruling, fear of persecution among all Pakistani Christians is extremely high. The church is bracing themselves for attacks on their homes and churches. Certain offices and schools also have been closed. “Our staff members are concerned about their children,” said one local Christian, “especially the ones who attend a school with a Muslim majority. Pray that while they travel home, they are not recognized as Christians and won’t draw any attention.”
Christians bear the brunt of persecution in Pakistan.
In the world’s sixth largest country and the fifth most dangerous country for Christians, believers who come from a Muslim background are targeted and seen as part of the downtrodden “untouchable” caste. They endure persecution from both the state and society. Radical Islamist groups see them as apostates; and their family, friends and neighbors see their conversion as shameful to the community. As a result, many Muslims refuse to drink and eat with them for fear of being defiled. And Christian women and girls live under a constant threat of abduction, rape and forced marriage. Tragically, Christian students who are forced to attend Muslim schools are often singled out and persecuted for their faith. Throughout the country, Christians are denied education, good-paying jobs and even public services like electricity and running water. The spread of Islamic extremism continues to grow with radical groups running thousands of madrasas (Islamic education centers) where youth are taught and encouraged to persecute religious minorities like Christians. Pakistan ranks 5th on the World Watch List for good reason.
Asia Bibi and the church in Pakistan need the global prayers of believers worldwide.
Asia and her family are still in extreme danger. In a video message before the verdict, the chief cleric of a hardcore extremist group called upon his followers to “come out on the roads and be ready to do and die in case the verdict of Supreme Court came out in favor of Asia Bibi.” We can pray for her and her family’s protection as they make plans to leave the country amid so much hate.
This is also an extremely volatile time for all Pakistani Christians, which number around 4 million in a country of 196 million. The ruling in this case greatly heightens the threat of widespread violent persecution. Open Doors partners are calling it a “highly tense and threatening situation.” Local Christian leaders in Pakistan comment that Muslim extremist groups are “on high alert and will be watching for any way to increase the pressure against Asia, Christians and the church.” A local Christian in his office shared: “The situation is unfolding. I’m at my work and I see the rangers come in to take over security. Please pray for God’s mercy and wisdom and for God to do an amazing work in this land.”
More than ever before, Pakistani believers need to know they’re not alone.