Foreign correspondent covering Afghanistan, Pakistan, South Asia, Latin America and immigration
Pamela Constable Foreign correspondent covering Afghanistan, Pakistan, South Asia, Latin America and immigration November 8 at 9:47 AM ISLAMABAD, Pakistan…
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – The release from prison of a Christian woman acquitted of blasphemy against Islam, and unconfirmed reports that she was then secretly airlifted abroad, are roaming Pakistani Muslims and intensifying fears in the country’s minority Christian community.
The government on Thursday confirmed the release of Asia Bibi, whose acquittal by the Pakistani Supreme Court last week sparked violent protests and death threats against authorities.
Pakistani news media reported widely Thursday that Bibi, whose lawyer fled the country earlier this week, was covertly freed from prison in the city of Multan under a high court order, driven to a military air base near the capital and flown to the Netherlands on Wednesday, accompanied by her family and the Dutch ambassador to Pakistan.
Pakistani officials insisted throughout the day Thursday that she had not been freed. The government, in a frantic and successful effort to stop the spread of violence last week, agreed in negotiations with protest leaders that it would not allow her to leave the country.
A Foreign Ministry spokesman said later Thursday that Bibi has been released from prison but remains “in a safe place in Pakistan.” He cautioned the news media to verify all speculative reports of her leaving “to prevent needless sensationalism and controversy.”
The Muslim religious group leading the protests, which brought the country to a near-standstill for three days after the Oct. 31 verdict, has demanded her death and threatened to take to the streets again if the state abetted her escape. In een verklaring gepubliceerd Thursday afternoon, de groep zei dat Bibi’s rapportage en vlucht de overeenkomst had overgebracht, bracht “pijn en verdriet” aan de natie en heeft geschreven een zwart hoofdstuk in de geschiedenis.
Maar in een videobericht, een senior leader of the group, Pir Afzal Qadri, said: “We have been assured by the government that she is in the custody of law enforcement agencies. . . and he has not been flown out of the country. “He said officials told the group that Bibi would not be allowed to leave until the Supreme Court rules on their appeal of her acquittal.
There were no immediate signs of further unrest, but tension and uncertainty was evident in a series of terse official statements, along with public confusion about Bibi’s status and whereabouts. Since the protests broke out, anxiety has run particularly high in Christian communities, where people were elated by her acquittal last week but horrified by the violence that greeted the ruling.
“We were all praying for this lady. When we heard she was free, we thought God had answered our prayers, “said Aslam Massih Hassan, an elder of the Jesus Calls Christian Ministry, a brightly painted cinder-block church in a maze of alleys that is home to several thousand poor Christian families in the capital.
But within hours of the Oct. 31 court order that overturned Bibi’s conviction, become spread in the community that thousands of Muslim protesters, angry at the verdict, were blocking major roads across the country. By next day, the swelling crowds had grown violent.
Rashida Mores, a housemaid who lives close to the church, said her daughter was supposed to report for night duty as a hospital nurse in Rawalpindi, 10 miles away.
“I asked her not to go, but she insisted,” Mores said. “She took a taxi on some back roads. I prayed all night until she came home. “
The spate of enraged protests provoked by a crusading anti-blasphemy group , was abruptly called off after officials hastily negotiated an agreement with its top leaders. Imran Khan, som har utstedt en stærk advarsel til protesterne, men som siden blev baket, har været kritiseret for at være en ekstremistisk religiøs bevægelse med voksende politiske ambitioner.
Analytikere forudsiger at gruppens ledere, som kommer fra Pakistan’s largest Sunni Muslim school and are gaining fervent new support, will feel emboldened to act more aggressively. And activists in the Christian population, estimated at about 3 million in the Muslim-majority country of 208 million, worry that the outbursts could easily flare again and that Christians and other minority groups could be singled out for attack.
“It seems like we have jungle law now. It is deeply disturbing that this one radical group has gotten so much power that they can take the whole country hostage, and no one can stop them, “said Nelson Azeem, a former legislator from Punjab and Christian leader. “This has caused great fear in the hearts of Christians and other minorities, who feel they could be targeted anywhere on charges of blasphemy and no one could protect them, no matter how baseless the charges are.”
Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws are vaak gebruikt kwaadwillig, met valse beschuldigingen tegen christenen en Ahmadis, een kleine minoriteit die reveres een modern-dag profeet uit India. In recent years, many minority neighborhoods and places of worship have been attacked by frenzied mobs, enraged by rumors that someone had torn or defaced a Quran. Ahmadis are reviled by many Pakistani Muslims, who fervently believe that Muhammad was the “final” prophet.
Bibi, a peasant field worker and mother of four, was accused of blasphemy in 2009 after an argument with Muslim co-workers about sharing water. She was swiftly convicted and sent to prison. Even after the Supreme Court ruled, in meticulous detail, that the case against her was based on flimsy and contradictory evidence, the emotionally charged protesters demanded that the illiterate mother of four be killed.
“We are all very much scared,” said Mahnaz Massih, 38, a beautician in a Christian neighborhood. “The pastor told us to hurry home after services and not linger outside. Hvis vi hører folk som talar om religion, vi siger ingenting. We respect Islam, and Muslims should respect us, but some Muslims are scared, too, “she added. “They do not like what is happening, but they do not dare go against it.”
One reason for the wider unease is that the leader of the protesters, a rabble-rousing cleric named Khadim Hussain Rizvi, also urged
The threat had a chilling precedent, which stemmed from the Bibi case and could potentially turn any overwrought Muslim believer into an assassin. After Salman Taseer, then the provincial governor of Punjab, publicly criticized the harsh treatment of Bibi, he was shot dead by his own bodyguard, 26-year-old Mumtaz Qadri, whose personal “martyrdom” for Islam became the rallying cry of Rizvi’s movement .
“With the killing of Salman Taseer, the issue of blasphemy became a weapon in their hands,” said Zahid Hussain, a writer and columnist on public affairs. “Når du arbejder på folks religiøse følsomheder og retfærdiggør killing i troens navn, skaber du en atmosfære af frygt, og det virker.”
Der er et andet, mere kompliceret årsag til regeringens reluctans til at sætte bremserne på anti-blasphemy crusade.
A senior Punjab minister visited the Shrine to Qadri, who was hanged for murder in 2016, and other officials attended his funeral. Security troops distributed money to Rizvi’s forces during protests last year on alleged official failures to protect the “finality of the prophethood” in federal law. And Khan’s party, then competing with the ruling Pakistan Muslim League in elections, made tactical alliances with Rizvi’s.
Army leaders have been particularly concerned by the protest leaders’ calls for a military uprising against the army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa. The group has insinuated that Bajwa is connected to the ostracized Ahmadi minority. In Khan’s tough speech after the court ruling, he specifically denounced threats against the army, which took pains to publicly distant himself from the crisis.
But the most vulnerable Pakistanis are those in poor minority communities like the one where Hassan’s church is located – a lively but shabby community in the capital that is just a 10-minute walk from the upscale cafe where Taseer was murdered in 2011. They have no weapons to defend themselves and no high walls separating them from any angry intruders.  “For now, Christians are not a direct target. The protesters are probably more angry at the government than anyone else, “said Munawar Inayat, the pastor of the Holy of Holies Ministry, another one-room sanctuary in Hassan’s community.