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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While deadly attacks on Christians over proposals to repeal the blasphemy law have now been replaced by reprisals over drone strikes, the effect on Pakistan's church is much the same.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.
This blasphemy laws kills and convicts Muslims, too. It allows people to settle personal scores. The judge decides whether to convict or not, and the court in Asia Bibi's case was a local tribunal. That's why she asked the high court to take her case, because in the village the justice is not very fair.
The number of those charged with blasphemy in Pakistan was 647 from 1986 to 2007, and another 627 from 2007 to 2010. That's an enormous increase. Is it still being used at this accelerated rate? What can explain the increase?
Yes. It's true. Since the war in Afghanistan, religious fundamentalists don't trust the West. The West caused much damage in Afghanistan and even along the northwest border of Pakistan, so people don't trust them. (A Gallup poll showed 92 percent of Pakistanis disapproved of the American leadership in 2012.) For them, the West means Christians.
Religious parties have become more important in Pakistan, and new government, headed by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, is close with the Pakistan Muslim League, the country's largest political party. And the society believes maybe blasphemy laws could be a good way to be harder on Christians.
Pakistani officials have never officially executed anyone for blasphemy. What usually happens to someone accused of blasphemy? Are they released? Or do they simply disappear into prison?
It is not the government that kills you when you are condemned for blasphemy. It is someone on the street who decides to kill you. (About 50 people accused of blasphemy have been killed after being released.)
A few weeks ago Asia Bibi was transferred to a different prison. She's now somewhere very far from her family so it is very difficult for her husband to visit her. It takes 12 hours on a bus, and it's expensive and difficult. She's terribly weak. Her family has been offered asylum by France, but they don't want to leave her alone.
It seems Pakistan wants to push her case under the carpet. The best scenario for the government would be for her to die out of the public eye, and so I think it is a very good thing that other countries are talking about her tragedy.
World Vision In Progress announced in February that a Christian, Barkat Masih, was acquitted of blasphemy by Pakistan's supreme court. Do you think clemency may also be granted to Bibi?
In the summer, the new prime minister decided to execute everyone who was condemned to death. This was one of the first policies of his new leadership. Some 8,000 people who are awaiting the death sentence are in jail in Pakistan. He decided a few weeks ago to kill everyone. (The resumption of executions in Pakistan has been temporarily stayed.)
Even if Asia Bibi puts her case on appeal, she will be consumed by this, so I'm not very hopeful. I'm afraid she'll be killed very soon if nothing happens. She is a poor Christian woman, but because she became a symbol of the blasphemy law, even if the government says, "Okay, we'll release her," the Taliban and fundamentalists would go crazy and try to kill the man who decided to release her. Nobody wants to do anything about her because it's really dangerous.
But it's not a lost cause. The book was recently released in the United States, which sends money to Pakistan. Because of that, the United States could exert pressure on the Pakistani government.
If she is released, where will she go?
She will have to leave the country immediately. Several European countries have granted her asylum: Spain, Italy, France.
How is Asia's story affecting Pakistani Christians?
I don't think it has changed a lot for them. They knew before her case that they could have trouble if they didn't respect Islam. Maybe now they are more careful during Ramadan. And when they go outside, women make sure they wear the veil because they don't want any Muslims to say they don't respect Islam.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is supportive of the blasphemy law. Is there any hope of an eventual change to the law?
No. With the new group (Sharif's administration) it is impossible. I don't have any hope.
The blasphemy law fits the definition of terrorism. It's a terror law. It's a way to instill terror. Everybody is scared of this law.
A year ago, more than 500,000 people from 100 countries signed a petition to the government of Pakistan to pardon Asia. What happens to efforts like these? Are they effective?
Pakistan is very proud and doesn't want to listen to or to be interfered with by the West.
I think the best thing to do is to buy the book because if the book is a big success, people will be talking about it, and the Pakistani government will know Asia Bibi's case has interested people in the United States. And the royalties go to her family. If they have enough money, she will be treated better by the guards in her prison.