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'I'm Afraid She'll Be Killed Very Soon if Nothing Happens'

One summer morning in Pakistan, a Christian woman named Asia Bibi took a break from her fieldwork to drink a cup of cold water from a well. Since she was a Christian, the Muslim women there saw her actions as contaminating the water. Angered, the women began to argue with her. Bibi asked them, "I believe in my religion and in Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for the sins of mankind. What did your Prophet Muhammad ever do to save mankind?"

Her question made the women furious. Bibi was beaten by a crowd and thrown into prison, accused of blasphemy and sentenced to death. She has been held since June 2009, and has become an international symbol of the capriciousness and cruelty of the Pakistani blasphemy law. Two Pakistani officials who spoke up for Bibi have been assassinated.

While deadly attacks on Christians over proposals to repeal the blasphemy law have now been replaced by reprisals over drone strikes, the effect on Pakistan's church is much the same. This weekend saw the deadliest attack ever on Pakistan's Christians—at least 85 people were killed and 100 wounded in a bombing of All Saints Church in Peshawar.

French journalist Anne Isabelle Tollet, serving as Bibi's ghostwriter, tells her story in Blasphemy: A Memoir: Sentenced to Death over a Cup of Water. (We're excerpting it today.) Freelance reporter Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra spoke with Tollet (before the weekend's bombing) about the blasphemy law in Pakistan, relationships between the country's Christians and Muslims, and the dimming hopes that Bibi will escape a martyr's death.

In order to be Asia Bibi's ghostwriter for the book, you had to tell the story in the voice of a woman you had never seen or talked to. How did you do it?

It wasn't easy. But I knew Pakistan and the Christian minority there very well because I had been living in Pakistan for three years. I could understand the people. I met Asia's sister, and I knew her children and husband. I asked them many, many questions about her. I asked them about what she was like, and about her faith, and about their feelings on many things. And because I was involved in this story and knew Shahbaz Bhatti, the Pakistan minister of minorities (one of the men who was assassinated after speaking up for Bibi), I knew many things about the situation and about the family.

Even though I never met Asia Bibi, I was able to interview her indirectly by asking questions through her husband, who was allowed to visit her once a week at the jail. I could also imagine where she was, because I used to visit different jails in Pakistan for other stories. I know how it is.

I think I managed to do it, because when we gave the book to her family, they were very surprised because it portrayed exactly what she is.

Drinking the water from the well contaminated it for the other women. But doesn't the crucial moment comes when Asia asks the women what Mohammad has ever done for mankind?

Yes. It was an offense because these women are not educated, and they live in fear. The things they do to be a good Muslim are to pray every day and not allow Christians to talk about the prophet Mohammed.

Bibi's survival tactics in Pakistan before her arrest seemed to be keeping her head down and being respectful of everyone and everything. Is that the best option for non-Muslims living there? Or is there no protecting yourself?

It depends on where you live, whether you live in a small village or in Punjab [Pakistan's most populated and developed area]. Some people are not educated at all, and when you are a Christian you have to be careful. In a big town, you're okay if you are living in a Christian community. They live together and don't have any trouble with Muslim people.

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Blasphemy: A Memoir: Sentenced to Death Over a Cup of Water
Chicago Review Press
160 pp., $11.44
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'I'm Afraid She'll Be Killed Very Soon if Nothing Happens'