Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman convicted of blasphemy, has been languishing in prison for more than five years. The 49-year-old mother of five was arrested in June 2009 after her neighbors complained that she had made derogatory remarks about Islam's prophet, Muhammad. A year later, Bibi was sentenced to death under the Islamic Republic's controversial blasphemy law despite strong opposition from the national and international human rights groups.
The slim hope that the Pakistani judiciary might pardon Bibi and eventually release her was dashed earlier this month when the Lahore High Court (LHC) ruled to uphold her 2010 death sentence.
In a DW interview, Dr. Clare Amos, a Program Executive and Coordinator for the Geneva-based World Council of Churches' inter-religious dialogue and cooperation program, says that Bibi's plight should not be ignored, and that Pakistan's blasphemy laws should be amended to make sure that they are not applied in cases of personal disputes.
DW: What does the World Council of Churches demand from the Pakistani courts in relation to Asia Bibi's case?
Dr. Clare Amos: We oppose the blasphemy law in its essence, but particularly we protest against the way it has been used in Pakistan to manipulate and deal with personal quarrels. Also, on occasion, the law is quite clearly used as an attempt to enable one person or one group to benefit financially at the expense of other people.
We would question the very rationale and essence of the blasphemy law in its existing form, which came in through General Zia ul-Haq in the 1980s. We would question how it is worded; we would question whether the death penalty could ever be appropriate; we would state that it is very ambiguous; and we would question the way it is used as a way of solving personal grievances.
The Pakistani judges who hear such cases are often subject to personal attack if they rule in favor of the person accused of blasphemy. We would be asking the judges to throw out any sentence of death in Asia Bibi's case.
How do you view the overall situations of minorities, particularly the Christians, in the South Asian country?
It is interesting that you said "particularly the Christians," because in reality there are other minorities in Pakistan that have suffered as much if not more. For example, the Shiite and the Ahmadiya communities are going through a very tough time at the moment in Pakistan. As far as the Christians in Pakistan are concerned, I am not satisfied, and I don't think that Pakistan, in the vision of its founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was set up to treat minorities the way they are being treated. It is ironical that Pakistan was created to support minorities within the Indian sub-continent, but now the minorities are being oppressed in the country.
What are your views on Pakistan's blasphemy laws? Should they be repealed?
It's a difficult question. I would say that it should be amended. In the case of Asia Bibi, she had a private conversation, and anything which happened at that time was in the heat of the moment between two people. I don't think that the blasphemy law should be dealing with these kinds of situations. There were laws during the colonial times in India, which were about not insulting the place of worship of various communities. But the laws in Pakistan, which came in the 1980s with the harsh penalties, I think they certainly need to be amended.
I admit that it is a difficult question that whether there should be a blasphemy law in a country like Pakistan or not. In my own country, the United Kingdom, there is a strong legislation that criminalizes people who seek to inculcate religious or racial hatred. But I don't think that there should be any law in Pakistan dealing with the private quarrel between two individuals. Having said that, it is appropriate to have some legislation to deal with the public order relating to a clearly deliberate attempt that proactively seeks to cause religious strife between different religious groups. But Asia Bibi's case certainly does not apply to that.
In the past few years, the violence against Christians and other religious minorities in Pakistan has increased manifold. What needs to be done to stop that?
It is part of the situation of democracy in the region. It is part of the fact that Pakistan has a border with Afghanistan, and the situation there has caused the increase in hostility and oppression of the Christians in Pakistan over the last decade. The Indian-Pakistani politics also play a part. The occasional inter-communal violence in India also raises the political temperature in Pakistan. There are of course internal factors, but the geo-political situation is also responsible for the situation.
The underprivileged segments of the Muslim community themselves experience injustice, and have little hope of getting justice from the legal system in Pakistan. For many of these people, the use of the Shariah law, or aspects of it, becomes much more enticing. So where do we need to break through to change things: what one really needs to is to create a Pakistan in which all people – Muslims, Christians, Hindus, and people from different branches of Islam – would all have a sense that they could have justice for themselves and their communities. I believe that in the case of Asia Bibi, the person who accused her of blasphemy was also a victim of the system.
Do you think that the international community can do anything to secure Asia Bibi's release?
That's for the governments to decide. What I can say is that we must not let the story of Asia Bibi go unnoticed. The fact that she has been in prison for five years doesn't mean that it shouldn't be news anymore. We need to keep up the pressure and make sure that her story is told and retold. That's the least that we owe to her.
Dr. Clare Amos is a Program Executive and Coordinator for the World Council of Churches' inter-religious dialogue and cooperation program, and was previously director for Theological Studies in the Anglican Communion Office in the United Kingdom.