It is not only in the Middle East and in areas under the control of ISIS that Christians and other minorities are suffering persecution. Pakistan, our friendly cricket-playing Commonwealth country is a major offender. In late November, the Christian news agency, BosNewsLife, reported that the European Parliament had demanded that Pakistan withdraw its blasphemy laws after Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five, lost her appeal against the death penalty. Dutch legislator and Member of the European Parliament, Peter Van Dalen, urged Pakistan to free Asia Bibi:
"Asia Bibi has already spent four years on death row, though she is innocent," said Van Dalen, an MEP of the ChristenUnie (Christian Union) party in the European Parliament. "She should be released". He said that Pakistan could either grant her a presidential pardon or speed up the process in front of the country's Supreme Court. "I expect Pakistan to take action. Free Asia Bibi now."
Bibi was detained in 2009 after she reportedly told Muslim co-workers that Jesus Christ is alive and that He "sacrificed His life on the cross for our sins." She allegedly made the remarks while working in the fields for a Muslim landowner. Besides "insulting Prophet Mohammad" she was accused "of contaminating" the well by Muslims. Asia Bibi has denied wrongdoing.
Van Dalen said her case underscored it was "rightly so" that the European Parliament demanded the withdrawal of Pakistan's controversial blasphemy legislation. "There are hundreds of Asia Bibi's," he added. "The blasphemy laws put a blanket of fear over Pakistan society and are misused by extremists."
Van Dalen argued that the blasphemy measures are against human rights treaties Pakistan signed in exchange for trade deals with the European Union. "A country doesn't receive those benefits easily. I therefore request the new European Commissioner for Trade [Cecilia] Malmstrom to quickly launch an investigation into the obligations that belong to the Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP)" .
Prime Minister Tony Abbott should also ask his Ambassador for Women, Natasha Stott Despoja, to take up the cause of Asia Bibi.
The GSP allows developing country exporters, including Pakistan, to pay less or no duties on their exports to the EU. This gives them vital access to EU markets and contributes to their economic growth, according to the European Commission. However there should be "no trade benefits in case of religious persecution," stressed Van Dalen. Under Pakistani blasphemy laws, insulting the Koran or Prophet Mohammad can be punished with life imprisonment or death.
On December 4, Van Dalen handed over a petition with 40,000 signatures to Pakistan's EU ambassador, demanding Bibi's release.
Rimsha Masih was another Christian who was accused of blasphemy and tried for the crime of desecrating pages of the Koran. Evidence in court indicated she was mentally handicapped, could not read, and was about 14 years old. It was suggested a Muslim cleric had framed her, and she was eventually acquitted. However, the Pakistani government had to spirit her and her family out of the country or they could have been assassinated. She and her family now live in an undisclosed location in Canada.
The Pakistani government faces the same dilemma in regard to Asia Bibi - if she is acquitted by Pakistan's Supreme Court or receives a Presidential pardon, the government will have to find her a safe haven. Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani school girl winner of the Nobel prize for her advocacy of education for girls, lives in the UK with her family. She may be a Nobel winner, but neither she nor her family could live in safety in Pakistan. This is the brutal reality of life in a country with blasphemy laws. Salman Taseer, the Muslim Governor of Punjab, was assassinated for speaking against the blasphemy laws, as was Shabaz Bhatti, a Christian, who was Minister for Minorities in the Pakistani government.
Steve Khan, President of the Australian Association of Pakistani Christians, points out that there are more Muslims than Christians languishing in Pakistani jails on charges of blasphemy. The laws are blatantly used to pay off grudges between accuser and accused.
Pakistan is not the only country which has to find "safe havens" for those under threat by Islamists. The UK has a similar problem. Christian Concern is the trading name of CCFON Ltd, a Christian organisation in the United Kingdom which seeks to introduce a 'Christian voice' into law, the media and government. In November Christian Concern launched an initiative to help protect those in the UK who want to leave Islam but fear the consequences of doing so.
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