Originally published at Convivium.ca on February 6, 2019.
While the Trudeau government has given Canadian Christians little reason to cheer, writes Convivium contributor Don Hutchinson, it deserves praise for its effort to save the persecuted Pakistani woman condemned to death for blasphemy against Islam.
“The time is always ripe to do right.” The phrase oft used by Martin Luther King, Jr. inspired readers of his 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail, and was last publicly voiced by him in a March 31, 1968 Sunday sermon, delivered at the National Cathedral days before his assassination.
In recent days, the time was ripe to do right for the government of Canada. As that doing of right came together, I was thankful, maxing out available characters in this tweet on January 29, 2019,
Thank you @CanadianPM @JustinTrudeau, Minister @cafreeland, Minister @HonAhmedHussen and Canadians who have assisted in bringing Asia Bibi and family to Canada. May the family find peace, security, and continued support and prayer in their new home.
There has been little for theologically conservative Christians in Canada, or abroad, to cheer in Justin Trudeau’s foreign policy.
Within days of taking office in November 2015, Prime Minister Trudeau’s campaign commitment to bring 15,000 more Syrian refugees into Canada by the end of the year than had been promised by Stephen Harper shifted Canada’s priority away from the most threatened. In particular, it put at greater risk the Chaldean Catholic and Syriac Orthodox Christian minorities in the Muslim majority nation. Assessing Christians involves more time and effort as most are in refugee camps outside of the official United Nations’ camps. It is a Muslim majority region and the UN camps are run by Muslims. Christians are more secure in their own camps. Trudeau’s government hurriedly transported a number of UN approved middle-class Muslim applicants, also displaced by the civil war.
Early in 2016, Trudeau ended the tenure of Canada’s first ambassador for religious freedom, without appointing a successor. The new government shuttered the world-acclaimed work of Canada’s Office of Religious Freedom just three years into its mandate, an office opened after nearly 15 years of effort by Canadian religious community leaders who understood the geopolitical importance of religion.
In 2017, Bob Rae was appointed Special Envoy to Myanmar, a Buddhist majority nation. Rae’s final report, issued in April 2018, focuses exclusively on government and military abuse of the Rohingya Muslims from Rakhine State, without addressing the persecution of Christians in Chin State.
Then, late in December 2018, word surfaced that high profile persecuted Pakistani Christian Asia Bibi’s children were in Canada. There was hope that Bibi would soon follow.
When speaking about how to judge those who claim leadership, Jesus said, “By their fruits you will know them” (Matthew 7:20). The time was ripe. A harvest of sorts might be redeemed for Trudeau by doing right for Asia Bibi.
For Bibi, it’s been a longer than usual journey to emigrate from Pakistan to Canada. Bibi spent nearly a decade on death row before being granted asylum in Canada while she was still in Pakistan.
Bibi was born Aasiya Noreen in 1971 into a Roman Catholic family, the only Christian family in their village near the capital city of Lahore. She lived an otherwise unremarkable lower-class life until being charged in June 2009 under Pakistan’s blasphemy law, and then being sentenced to hang in 2010.
“Bibi” is a title of respect, like “Miss,” so when we speak of Asia Bibi we are speaking respectfully about Miss Aasiya. Given the international usage of Asia Bibi as her name, I will use that protocol for ease of reader reference.
Bibi is married to Ashiq Masih, a bricklayer who had three children from a prior marriage. She and Masih have two children together. Bibi worked as a farm labourer until June 2009 when she was told by the women harvesting berries alongside her to fetch the water cup. Bibi took a drink out of the cup, and one of the women became furious because it is forbidden for a Christian to drink from the same cup as a Muslim. The women demanded that Bibi convert to Islam, so they, too, could drink from the cup. An argument followed, during which Asia Bibi declared her faith in Jesus Christ and challenged why she should convert to Islam instead of the others converting to Christianity.
A few days later, a mob came to her house. They beat Asia Bibi and members of her family before police arrived to arrest her, charging Bibi under the Pakistan Penal Code with blasphemy against Islam. Bibi denied the charge of blaspheming the prophet Mohammed.
Fearing for their own lives, Bibi’s family did not attend her trial. She was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to death.
That might have been the end of an otherwise unremarkable story in Pakistan except for a prison visit from the governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, along with his wife and daughter. Convinced of Bibi’s innocence and the unjust nature of the blasphemy law, Taseer spoke out on her behalf. The case escalated to national attention. On January 4, 2011, Taseer was assassinated by a member of his security detail.
Pakistan’s Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti was the first Christian parliamentarian in the federal cabinet. He, too, spoke out on Bibi’s behalf and against the blasphemy law. Bhatti was assassinated on March 2, 2011.
He had just returned to Pakistan from meetings in London, Washington, and Ottawa, where he had raised the profile of Bibi’s situation as well as the general injustice of the blasphemy law. Bhatti’s assassination brought an international profile to Asia Bibi, now a symbol for religious freedom and living testimony to the misuse of an abusive law.
In addition to gaining attention from prominent politicians, Bibi’s death sentence was appealed in the courts. Christian organizations worldwide were advocating with their governments and praying for Bibi, her family, and an end to unjust blasphemy laws in Pakistan and elsewhere.
In October 2018, the three judges of the Supreme Court of Pakistan courageously issued a decision acquitting Bibi. The evidence against her was found to be inconsistent and dependent on unreliable testimony. Extremist Muslim factions in Pakistan had threatened the government if Bibi was not hanged. There were mass protests. Within days, to restore a semblance of peace, the government signed an agreement with one of the extremist groups that would see Bibi kept in detention while the acquittal was reviewed by a new panel of judges. A number of governments, including Canada’s, as well as non-governmental organizations, protested the deal.
In late December, word filtered out that Bibi’s children were in Canada, offering some peace to their parents in the unrest that churned in Pakistan. Then came word that Bibi had been offered asylum in Canada.
On January 29, the Supreme Court upheld Bibi’s acquittal. Later that day, scattered reports suggested she had been secretly taken out of Pakistan, headed for Canada. But, a week later, sources in Pakistan say secure travel is a concern.
Pakistan is a Muslim majority nation. It is illegal to insult Islam. Even acquitted by the Supreme Court, public opinion may pass a different judgement, and extremist elements most certainly have. A Christian woman charged with blaspheming the Prophet Mohammed cannot simply board a commercial flight to leave the country. Neither is her security guaranteed after leaving Pakistan.
The efforts of Prime Minister Trudeau, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, and Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen have resulted in an important measure of security for Asia Bibi’s children, and an offer of asylum for Bibi and Masih. No doubt the multi-tasking Global Affairs’ Office of Human Rights, Freedoms and Inclusion – tasked with trying to fill the gap left by the Office of Religious Freedom, among other things – also played a role.
Whether Canada is the final destination for Bibi’s family, or a stop-off point on the way elsewhere, the time was ripe to do the right thing, and the government of Canada has done so.
The Scriptures remind us, in reference to Christians who are being persecuted, that we are to “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated” (Hebrews 13:3). Asia Bibi is one of many. We remember all and are thankful for help given to even one; thankful to God and thankful to politicians who risked and gave their lives, governments who intervened, non-governmental organizations who advocated and called for prayer, Bibi’s lawyer, the judges of Pakistan’s Supreme Court, and Canadians who have assisted in bringing Asia Bibi and family to Canada. May the family find peace, security, and continued support and prayer in their new home.