PHILADELPHIA — A Pakistani Catholic priest living in Philadelphia is grateful to learn that Asia Bibi, a Catholic convicted of violating Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws, has had her death sentence overturned.
Father Tariq Isaac, chaplain of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Pakistani Catholic community, called the announcement “very good news for all the people who are raising their voice for justice.”
However, he urged Catholics and other Christians to “pray for the safety of Asia Bibi, her family and all others convicted of the blasphemy laws” in Pakistan.
Father Isaac and his family know firsthand the dangers of living out the Christian faith in Pakistan.
Seven years ago, Father Isaac’s brother and several other Christians were arrested for blasphemy in the family’s hometown of Gujranwala, near Lahore. Burned and vandalized copies of the Quran had been placed in front of their houses by local Muslim and political leaders, who then charged and imprisoned the minority group.
Upon their release, several arranged to leave Pakistan immediately. Father Isaac, who had served as a priest in Pakistan for 18 years, followed his brother to the United States. A third brother, who also faced blasphemy accusations, currently lives in Malaysia but hopes to move to Canada. Father Isaac’s parents arrived in the U.S. in May 2018; his two sisters remain in Pakistan.
Most of the Philadelphia area’s Pakistani Catholics and Christians have similar stories to tell, said Father Isaac, now in residence at a parish where about 60 families celebrate Sunday Mass in Urdu, Pakistan’s official language.
“They come because they have been persecuted, or because they have received threats, or because they fear they will,” he told CatholicPhilly.com, the news outlet of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
Father Isaac estimates there are an additional 200 to 300 Pakistani Christian families from other denominations in the Philadelphia area.
In Pakistan, violent protests erupted throughout the country following Bibi’s Oct. 31 acquittal by the Supreme Court.
An extremist group called Tehreek-e-Labbaaik has challenged Bibi’s freedom and also is putting pressure on the government to try to stop Bibi from leaving Pakistan, even if her acquittal is upheld.
Bibi’s lawyer fled Pakistan Nov. 3, citing fears for his safety; her husband, Ashiq Masih, has appealed to the United Kingdom’s prime minister, Theresa May, to grant the family asylum. Masih also has implored U.S. and Canadian leaders for assistance.
Bibi, 55, has spent the past eight years in solitary confinement after a 2010 conviction for insulting Muhammad, the founder of Islam. In June 2009, she was working as a farmhand when Muslim co-workers objected to her drinking from a common water supply because she is a Christian. They accused her of insulting the prophet.
Bibi’s case has long garnered international attention, with Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis and a number of human rights groups calling for her freedom. In their Oct. 31 decision vacating the sentence, the judges cited “glaring contradictions” in the prosecution’s evidence.
Pakistan’s bishops have cautioned Christians to show restraint in reacting to the verdict and the subsequent protests, so as to avoid coming under further attack.
Ultimately, Father Isaac sees Bibi’s acquittal as a triumph of truth over sectarianism, and a demonstration of courage in the face of extremism.
“This is not a question of Christian or Muslim, but an example of how these judges took the burden on their shoulders to give a right decision, a just verdict,” he said. “I don’t say that they should give decisions in favor of Christians or in favor of any particular religion. Justice should be based on rights and according to the laws.”
Given the fallout from the court ruling, however, he remains cautious about the prospect of religious freedom in Pakistan.
“I don’t think it will happen,” he said. “There is only one possibility, and that is if the government takes stern action against extremists. But officials themselves are afraid of them, and fear that if they take any action, their own families could suffer.”
He added that Christians in other nations can support their Pakistani brethren by making world leaders more aware of their plight.
“That means approaching government officials here in America to let them know what is really happening to Christians in Pakistan,” said Father Isaac, noting that U.S. leaders often dialogue only with majority Muslim leaders from Pakistan.
Father Isaac stressed that Pakistani Christians need spiritual solidarity from their fellow believers more than ever.
“Our bishops have told us to be patient,” he said. “We need prayers for peace in Pakistan. We need prayers for peace in the world.”
The author, Gina Christian, is senior content producer at CatholicPhilly.com, the news outlet of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.