If there ever was a time for America to speak up for religious freedom, that time is now.
Asia Bibi — the Christian mother of five sentenced to death nearly a decade ago under Pakistan’s arcane blasphemy laws — is, in effect, still facing a sentence, despite the Supreme Court of Pakistan overturning her actual death sentence on October 31, acquitting her of all charges, and authorizing her immediate release.
The celebration by the international community was quickly drowned out by the thundering rage of mobs, organized by the Islamic extremist party Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP), who demanded her death.
Prime Minister Imran Khan, the cricket-star-turned-politician, initially resisted the demands of the extremists, but after three days of rioting, he capitulated. This isn’t new from the Pakistani prime minister. He did the same this year when he briefly appointed a world-renowned Princeton professor as an economic adviser only to bow to protests days later because the scholar happened to be an Ahmadi Muslim. The Ahmadiyya is a minority sect of Islam Pakistan’s Islamists viciously oppose.
In what can only be described as a devil’s bargain, the Pakistani government has now agreed to step aside and allow the extremists to put Bibi on a “flight risk” list to prevent her from leaving the country and to file an absurd appeal against the Supreme Court’s decision.
The government’s kowtowing to religious fanatics does not bode well for Bibi who, after spending over nine years in jail, seems closer to death than ever — either by a court’s reinstitution of her death sentence or an extrajudicial execution by a mob.
If you think I am an alarmist and the situation isn’t so dire, I beg you to consider this: Salman Taseer, former governor of Punjab, was murdered by his own bodyguard in 2011 because he was against the blasphemy laws and suggested filing a mercy petition for Bibi. Saiful Malook, Bibi’s attorney, was forced to flee to the Netherlands after receiving death threats. And the judges who ordered her acquittal have been similarly threatened.
Were extremists to get near Bibi, her husband Ashiq Masih, and her children, we would be reading the news of their horrendous murders the next day. In places like Pakistan, religious minorities — whether Christians, Hindus, Baha’is, or Ahmadis — not only suffer from a lack of religious freedom; they suffer from a lack of any basic rights.
So far, a few European countries, chiefly Italy among them, have hinted at extending an asylum offer to Bibi, if she can manage to get out of Pakistan. Canada also has reportedly raised the issue with the Pakistani government.
Besides government-level discussions to save Bibi, there have been some grassroots efforts to urge countries to action, including by three prominent British imams who wrote a letterto England’s home secretary asking him to offer sanctuary to Bibi. Scottish church leaders also have asked their home secretary to bring her to Scotland.
All of these are encouraging signs of a possible peaceful resolution to Bibi’s fate, but it is America everyone is waiting to hear from.
Simply by telling Pakistan the United States will not tolerate this miscarriage of justice, President Donald Trump will do more for Asia Bibi’s release than probably everybody else’s efforts combined. This is because the United States has the political gravitas as an ally to let Pakistan know there will be a hefty price to pay if they allow Bibi to be murdered.
Few Western nations — which tend to be encumbered by political correctness and a misguided obsession with the separation of church and state — are bold enough to take a stand for persecuted Christians, despite the fact Christians are the most widely persecuted religious group in the world. Even the U.K. has hesitated at offering asylum to Bibi, after being urged by the Foreign Office to refrain from doing so due to fear for the safety of its consular staff in Islamabad.
President Trump has shown before the fortitude to act when it comes to issues of international religious freedom, as was the case with Andrew Brunson, who was imprisoned in Turkey. Of course, Brunson is an American citizen, but the president went to lengths previous presidents would doubtfully have gone to ensure his release.
Moreover, his administration has made religious freedom a priority like no other administration before. The State Department recently hosted the first-ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, which culminated with the Potomac Declaration and Plan of Action, two documents that call for committed action to protect people from religious persecution.
Thankfully, Bibi’s plight has not gone unnoticed in Congress. In a recent interview, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) said he spoke to the president and asked him to offer her asylum. The senator also introduced a bipartisan bill last year to prod the Pakistani government to release Bibi from jail.
“If ever there was a call for a refugee to be admitted into our country, I think this is one,” Sen. Paul said.
Hopefully, Sen. Paul’s efforts will encourage more lawmakers to speak up and spur the White House to intervene on behalf of Bibi.
Americans might not always be aware of it, but when it comes to religious freedom, the U.S. holds a unique significance for Christians and other religious minorities across the world.
Every faith has a home where it can find protection and support. For Muslims, it is Saudi Arabia or Iran; for Hindus, it is India; for Buddhists, it is Southeast Asia; and for Jews it is Israel. But where do the world’s Christians go to in time of need?
Asia Bibi is looking to the place where she knows persecuted Christians can find succor. Will America respond?
Most Rev. Joseph D’Souza is an internationally renowned human and civil rights activist. He is the founder of Dignity Freedom Network, an organization that advocates for and delivers humanitarian aid to the marginalized and outcast of South Asia. He is archbishop of the Anglican Good Shepherd Church of India and serves as the president of the All India Christian Council.