Lahore (AsiaNews) – Pakistani Christians and churches around the world have lighted candles and said prayers to save Asia Bibi, the 45-year-old mother of five, sentenced to death on blasphemy charges and now the target of Muslim fundamentalists. The initiative was launched on 13 April by the Masihi Foundation and has been picked up by bishops, priests and Pakistani lay people. Mgr Rufin Anthony told AsiaNews that “he was deeply touched by her faith”, which “shall set her free” because of her belief in “Christ the Saviour”. In the meantime, Arif Masih, the 40-year-old Christian man held for a few days on blasphemy charges, later dropped, is in a safe location in “good physical and mental conditions”.
This afternoon at 4 pm (Pakistan time), special Masses and vigil prayers and fasting were held to remember Asia Bibi and all the victims of Pakistan’s infamous blasphemy law. The Catholic woman has been on death row for almost two years, far from her husband and children, waiting for her death sentence to be carried out.
Three months ago, the authorities placed her in isolation because of death threats from Muslim fundamentalists, who want to kill her before her appeal trial.
Many people have joined the Masihi Foundation initiative, including the bishops and archbishops of Islamabad, Faisalabad, Lahore, Multan and Karachi.
The Anglican Church also expressed its solidarity towards Catholics over the Asia Bibi affair and has organised special services and prayers on behalf of the 45-year-old Catholic woman, urging Anglicans to light a candle for her.
Using AsiaNews as a platform, the bishop of Islamabad Rufin Anthony said he wanted to send “a brief message of consolation to Asia Bibi”. The prelate said that he followed “the matter with great interest and affection since its early phase.” Despite her health problems, she “has been fasting and in so doing is showing how strong her faith is, praying for others.”
“I am deeply touched by her faith,” Mgr Anthony added, for it “shall set her free” because of her belief in “Christ the Saviour”.
The bishop of Islamabad urged “all Christians” to light a candle “for the mother in prison and pray for her” so that she may soon “be reunited with her family”. As Lent is time “for sacrifice”, he said, “We must pray to give her strength” during Holy Week. “I pray God that He might make her strong in his name and glory”.
Meanwhile, 40-year-old Arif Masih, a Christian man arrested on 5 April and held for a few days for blasphemy is in “good physical and mental conditions”.
Police dropped charges against him thanks to the efforts of the activists of the Masihi Foundation. He had been arrested for allegedly tearing up a copy of the Qur‘an based on accusations made by one Shahid Yousaf, one of Masih’s Muslim neighbours. His release was made possible by affidavits signed by dozens of other Muslim neighbours, which showed that the accusations were false and the result of a personal vendetta.
At present, Arif Masih and his family are in a safe location to protect him from possible retaliation from Muslim fundamentalists. Speaking to AsiaNews, he said he never lost faith even when he was in police custody. “I prayed and put my trust in God’s help because I knew he would be there for me,” he said.
He was well treated by police and was never abused. “I was in a cell with 40 other prisoners. They knew I was in prison for blasphemy but they did neither threaten me nor ask me any awkward questions.”
Arif is grateful to the Masihi Foundation for its help and protection, which will continue because “he is not safe in Pakistan.”
In fact, anti-Christian violence continues in the country. The latest victim is Saleem Masih, a garment worker in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province (ex-NWFP). Four men on motorbikes stopped him on his way home from work. After beating him up, they threatened him.
A few days ago, he had had an altercation with Muslim colleagues over the murder of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti and a bounty placed on Asia Bibi’s head by Muslim fundamentalists. Now, he has fled his home for a safe house for himself and his family.
For Fr Javed Gill, cases like Saleem Masih’s “have become routine in Pakistan”, where religious minorities in general and Christians in particular are regularly attacked.
“When someone openly puts a bounty on Asia Bibi’s head and is not charged or arrested, that is a sign that extremist groups are stronger than the government,” the priest said in reference to Mullah Yousuf Qureshi who offered a US$ 6,000 reward for anyone who would kill the Christian woman.