Ottawa writer Christopher Guly retraces the steps that brought the Pakistani mother of five to safe haven in Canada, including Cardus’ own Andrew Bennett’s efforts to raise awareness of her persecution.
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Having the freedom to express an opinion (without promoting hatred) and choose (or not) whom or what we worship are rights inherent to Canadians.
The Canadian Criminal Code once had a s. 296 dealing with blasphemous libel, which did not include anyone who expressed or attempted “to establish by argument” – both in “good faith” and in “decent language” – an opinion on a religious subject.” It originated in English common law to address the publication of anti-Christian material intended to vilify or ridicule adherents, and was an indictable offence in Canada that could result in a maximum two year prison term.
But in recent years, s. 296 was viewed as vulnerable to a constitutional challenge under the fundamental freedoms section of the Charter. Late last year, Parliament removed blasphemous libel from the Criminal Code.
Had Asia Noreen – commonly known as Asia Bibi – lived in Canada before the repeal of s. 296, she would not have been charged under the law.
But the Pakistani Catholic mother of five, who defended her Christian beliefs in an argument with Muslim women in rural Punjab a decade ago, faced an incomprehensible fate under the penal code of Pakistan, which guarantees freedom of religion under its constitution.
In November 2010, a Punjabi judge sentenced Bibi to death by hanging for violating Pakistan’s blasphemy law. Her alleged crime? While harvesting falsa berries in June 2009, she took a break and sipped water from a cup she brought to her fellow female Muslim workers. Bibi was accused of contaminating the water and told to convert to Islam.
She reportedly responded by saying: “I believe in my religion and in Jesus Christ, who died on the Cross for the sins of mankind. What did your Prophet Mohammed ever do to save mankind? And why should it be me that converts instead of you?”
Bibi spent almost eight years on death row – the first woman convicted under Pakistan’s blasphemy law – before the country’s Supreme Court overturned her conviction last October.
“According to the Holy Qur’an, a Muslim’s faith is not complete till he believes in all the Holy Prophets and Messengers of Almighty Allah including Jesus Christ (Isa son of Maryam) (Peace Be Upon Him) and all the revealed Holy Books of Almighty Allah including the Holy Bible. From that perspective, insulting the appellant’s religion by her Muslim co-workers was no less blasphemous,” one of the high court’s judges, Asif Saeed Khan Khosa, wrote in a concurrent opinion within the ruling.
“Blasphemy is a serious offence. But the insult of the appellant’s religion and religious sensibilities by the complainant party and then mixing truth with falsehood in the name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) was also not short of being blasphemous,” he continued. “It is ironical that in the Arabic language the appellant’s name, Asia, means ‘sinful’ but in the circumstances of the present case she appears to be a person, in the words of Shakespeare’s King Lear, ‘more sinned against than sinning.’”
However, hardline Islamists rejected Bibi’s acquittal and led violent, mass protests calling for her execution. She spent months, following the court decision, finding refuge in safe houses in Islamabad and Karachi until, with no public warning, she was whisked out of Pakistan and crossed the Pacific Ocean for Canada.
On May 7, Bibi arrived in Ottawa where she was reunited with two of her daughters who have lived in the capital since last December, according to Bibi’s lawyer, Saiful Malook. Wilson Chowdhry, chairman of the British Pakistani Christian Association, told The Globe and Mail that Bibi’s husband, Ashiq Masih, also came to Canada with his wife.
Last November, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his government was in talks with Pakistan about helping the woman whose plight captured the world’s attention.
Andrew Bennett tried to assist too. In March 2014, just over a year after he became Canada’s first and so far only ambassador for religious freedom, Bennett visited Islamabad and raised Bibi’s case with Pakistani government officials.
In turn, Bibi’s imprisonment played an indirect role in the creation of Bennett’s ambassadorial position and the Office of Religious Freedom in 2013.
Two years earlier, Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s first-ever minister for minorities and a Catholic, was shot and killed by two self-described Taliban gunmen on March 2, 2011 after he demanded justice for Bibi and openly criticized Pakistan’s blasphemy law.
The assassination of Bhatti, who had just visited Canada in February 2011 and met with former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, served as the “catalyst” for the Harper government’s establishment of the Office of Religious Freedom, according to Bennett, a Ukrainian Catholic deacon who now serves as director of the Cardus Religious Freedom Institute and program director for Cardus Law.
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He says that in a meeting with Harper and Jason Kenney, who was Canada’s citizenship and immigration minister at the time and is now premier of Alberta, Bhatti discussed the persecution Pakistan’s minority faith groups faced both from the country’s government and extremist groups.
“He said that there was a very high risk of him being killed for his work in defending minorities,” recalls Bennett, who notes that the Harper government offered the Pakistani minister asylum in Canada. “He said, ‘I need to go back because I need to be with these people and speak for them’ – and then he was gunned down in front of his mother’s house.”
However by coming to Canada, Bibi has experienced “a very good ending to what could have been a very tragic situation,” Bennett added.
Yet she still faces danger, only a week after arriving on Canadian soil.
On May 14, the British Pakistani Christian Association (BPCA) posted on its website a video from an Islamic militant who outlines a plot to kill the “blasphemer Asia Bibi.”
The man – only his torso is shown – says that while in Canada, Bibi will receive “an award and will be asked to say the same blasphemous words again.”
“To stop this act and to give Asia a terrible death and to send her to hell, I have also reached Canada last night,” he says in the undated video.
In a statement, the BPCA’s Chowdhry said that Bibi’s “release is a real bone of contention with the millions of radicalized Muslims across the globe who are waiting for an opportunity to assassinate [her], or [launch] a mass terrorist strike in revenge for what they see as a perceived blasphemy.”
“It is not known whether the threat made by the man in the video is genuine or not, however the fact that the video exists is a chilling concern. We have informed American, British, Canadian and Pakistani officials of fear for Asia Bibi's safety and many other innocents who will be targeted because of hatred for her.”
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