Every time Islam is in the middle, [Pope] Francis is extremely cautious. But on Pakistan his reticence is at its highest. Here is the story of the Christian mother on which he is silent. She has been in prison for seven years, and her fate is interwoven with the Easter massacre in Lahore.
ROME, April 5, 2016 – In commenting on Lahore’s bloody Easter, Pope Francis was very careful not to bring up the authors of the attack and not to address the meaning of that crime, which on the contrary he called “meaningless”:
In doing this he bowed down to the canons of that minimalist diplomacy which traditionally guides the steps of the Holy See on the most mine-strewn terrain, justified by the intention of not exposing to further danger the most vulnerable Christian communities, precisely like that of Pakistan.
And up to this point there is no surprise. Whenever Islam is in the middle, Jorge Mario Bergoglio is extremely cautious. Only once has he made a departure, and entirely on his own initiative, with Turkey on the “genocide” of the Armenians, making a bit of a mess for the secretariat of state, which had to scramble for months to patch things up with the Turkish authorities:
> Genocidio armeno. Francesco tra diplomazia e “parresìa” (24.4.2015)
But on Pakistan the pope is even more reserved and silent than ever, far below the expectations of the Christians of that country. The Pakistan dossier is one of the most voluminous and distressing at the secretariat of state, and yet none of this appears in what Francis says and does on the rare occasions on which he finds himself obligated to speak out.
The emblem of this reticence is in the 12 seconds – not one more – of face-to-face that the pope had in Saint Peter’s Square on April 15 one year ago, with the husband and youngest daughter of Asia Bibi, the Pakistani Catholic sentenced to death in 2010 under the spurious accusation of having offended the prophet Muhammad, and imprisoned since then while awaiting a new sentence that would save her life.
In the fleeting encounter along the barriers – as can be seen in the video – the pope brushes past the two, accompanied by the children’s tutor. He does not listen to them, he does not speak, he does not bless them. The girl looks at him with amazement at such coldness. Everything takes place as if the name of Asia Bibi means nothing to Francis:
On November 17, 2010, a few days before she was sentenced to death, Benedict XVI publicly called for Asia Bibi to be set free. But this has remained the first and only time a pope has spoken her name in public, in spite of the subsequent mobilization of many in support of her and in spite of the fact that her case is interwoven with all the following events of anti-Christian hatred in Pakistan, up to the massacre this past Easter, with 74 dead and 350 wounded, most of them women and children.
Asia Bibi was arrested on June 19, 2009, and sentenced to death on November 11, 2010, on the charge, not supported by evidence, of having violated the law in Pakistan that punishes with execution an offense against the Islamic religion.
The family appealed, and many people swung into action for the liberation of the condemned woman and for the revision of the law against blasphemy, including the governor of Punjab at the time and a potential future prime minister, Salmaan Taseer, a Muslim, who also went to visit her in prison.
But on January 4, 2011, Taseer was killed by one of his bodyguards, Mumtaz Qadri, precisely out of retaliation for his efforts.
And two months later, on March 2, someone else was assassinated for the same reason, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic champion of human rights and the minister for minorities. Benedict XVI knew him personally, having met him in Rome in September of the previous year and feeling great esteem for him.
On January 10, 2011, a few days after the killing of Taseer and a few before that of Bhatti, Benedict XVI dedicated to the question this passage of his new year’s address to the diplomatic corps:
“Among the norms prejudicing the right of persons to religious freedom, particular mention must be made of the law against blasphemy in Pakistan: I once more encourage the leaders of that country to take the necessary steps to abrogate that law, all the more so because it is clear that it serves as a pretext for acts of injustice and violence against religious minorities. The tragic murder of the governor of Punjab shows the urgent need to make progress in this direction: the worship of God furthers fraternity and love, not hatred and division.”
Shahbaz Bhatti’s brother, Paul, has sought since then to inspire a national and international mobilization in support of religious freedom, with Asia Bibi as the emblematic case.
In his country, Paul Bhatti founded and leads the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance, and was minister for national harmony. And today he claims that steps forward have been made in defense of minorities, in oversight of the Quranic schools in which hatred against the “infidels” is instilled, in the legal reforms brought by the supreme court to blasphemy cases and above all in a more decisive commitment of the authorities, not only political but also military, in fighting Islamic radicalism, especially after the appalling attack on December 16, 2014 on the military school in Peshawar, with the deliberate killing of 132 students between the ages of 17 and 18.
One effect of this evolution has been, in Bhatti’s judgment, precisely the acceptance by the supreme court of Pakistan, on July 22 of 2015, of Asia Bibi’s appeal. Who, while awaiting a new trial to acknowledge her innocence, continues from prison to make her voice heard, with letters and appeals.
For example, with this open letter of December 2012, in which she thanks Benedict XVI for having interceded in her favor:
As also with the two letters she sent personally to Pope Francis, which received no response.
Asia Bibi has been kept in a maximum security cell since 2010, in an isolation justified by the continual threats against her life. Even her food is checked, to prevent its being poisoned.
But her family too, her husband Ashiq Masih and five children Imran, Nasima, Isha, Sidra, and Isham, must hide in secret locations for security reasons. This is what they had to do, in particular, at the end of last February, in conjunction with the execution of Mumtaz Qadri, the author of the 2011 assassination of Punjab governor Salmaan Naseer.
The hanging of Qadri, which took place on February 29, prompted the mass reaction of his supporters and of radical Islamic groups, who took to the streets in Lahore, Karachi, Peshawar, and other cities, here and there with explosions of violence.
For all of them Qadri is a “national hero,” and they are calling for his exoneration and raising effigies of him. While for Asia Bibi they are incessantly demanding death.
On the day of Easter, one month after Qadri’s execution, 30,000 took to the streets in Islamabad, the capital, and tried to break through the “red zone” of the institutional buildings. But they were pushed back. On the afternoon of the same day, in Lahore, a twenty-year-old Muslim suicide bomber blew himself up at the Gulshan-i-Iqbal park, massacring women and children who were celebrating the holiday, introduced by the government for the first time this year.
Responsibility for the massacre was claimed by an Islamic organization called Jamaat-ul-Aharar, a faction of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, as a deliberate attack against the Christians celebrating Easter.
And it is not the first attack carried out in Pakistan with this declared objective, on a Sunday and in front of crowded churches. The same thing happened on September 22, 2013 in Peshawar, with 126 victims, and on March 15, 2015 in Yuhannabad, with 26 dead and many wounded, all Christians.
Last March 31 the radical Muslims left the streets, boasting of having received from the government the assurance that Asia Bibi would be hung soon. The Pakistani authorities denied it.
On Wednesday, March 2, at the end of the general audience in Saint Peter’s Square, Pope Francis had met briefly with two Pakistani officials, ports and shipping minister Kamran Michael and religious affairs minister Sardar Muhammad Yousaf. The two had passed on to the pope an invitation from prime minister Nawaz Sharif to visit Pakistan. And they had interpreted the pope’s response as a “yes,” giving the impression that he would make a stop in Pakistan next September, on the occasion of the journey to Calcutta to canonize Mother Teresa.
In reality, as Fr. Federico Lombardi clarified, this year the pope will not go to Calcutta, much less to Pakistan.
Nor has he yet dedicated a single word to Asia Bibi. Whose ordeal extends to her husband and children, who since she has been in prison, for almost 2500 days, must continually take shelter in hiding, their lives being in danger as well.
From their village of Ittanwali they moved to Lahore, a big city in which anonymity is easier. But soon they were also recognized and threatened there. In order to hide, the husband had to quit working. Last summer they were driven out of their home and now have taken shelter in a school of the Renaissance Education Foundation.
The director of this foundation, Joseph Nadeem, is the gentleman in the tie beside the daughters of Asia Bibi, in the video of the meeting with Pope Francis.
To whom he tried uselessly to say in Spanish who the man and his daughter were, not even succeeding in handing him the dossier he wanted to give him.
For more details on the calvary of the husband and five children of Asia Bibi: