In a country where a dispute over water can lead to charges of blasphemy, and an accusation of blasphemy can lead to a death sentence, the murder of a governor might spell the death of all justice.
"He was the only one who dared to raise his voice for what he believed in," says Pakistani Christian advocate Joseph Francis, of slain Punjab governor Salman Taseer.
For the past year and a half, a chilling story has been unfolding in Pakistan. The plot thickens and winds and takes gut-wrenching turns with nearly every week. And as the names Asia Bibi and Salman Taseer spill across the headlines, citizens of the free world have a decision to make: whether to stand by silently like the thousands of seat-bound spectators watching Christians martyred in the Roman coliseum, or to stand up and speak out—while we still can.
In a world that celebrates the first woman to run for president, enter space, or climb Mount Everest, Asia Bibi is in a category all her own. She is the first woman to be sentenced to death under Pakistan’s blasphemy law.
A Christian wife and mother who once eked out a meager existence working in the fields of local farms, Asia ignited a firestorm of controversy last summer when she was accused of blasphemy after a dispute with Muslim coworkers. Since then, she has been sitting on death row, her family in hiding, awaiting hanging for committing supposed blasphemy against the Prophet Mohammed.
Salman Taseer was the governor of Punjab province, and a moderate Muslim. He had visited the condemned Asia Bibi in prison, and openly decried the Blasphemy Law that led to her death sentence. In November, Taseer turned extremist heads with his controversial perspective on the law, suggesting on CNN’s “Connect to the World” that it be "changed in such a way that if you insult any prophet, no matter who he is, then that is a criminal offense. But certainly not punishable by death."
The Ultimate Price
In addition to his controversial words on the Blasphemy Law, Taseer called for the release of Bibi, an act of courage that he must have known was a risky move. In a Twitter posting shortly thereafter, Taseer wrote, "I was under huge pressure sure 2 cow down b4 rightist pressure on blasphemy. Refused. Even if I'm the last man standing."
And tragically, he isn’t standing anymore. It was the governor’s defense of Asia Bibi that made him what Center for Security Policy Senior Fellow Clare Lopez called “a marked man from the moment he spoke.” For his courage, Salman paid the ultimate price, perishing under a hail of twenty-seven bullets fired by his own bodyguard on January 4.
Twenty-seven bullets. There was nothing indistinct about this killer’s intentions. There was nothing blurred or unclear, for he used not one bullet, not two or even three, but twenty-seven. If anything, this single act encapsulates a world of hatred and virulence against Christians and anyone who stands up for them.
‘Bravery can be fatal’
Reactions to Taseer’s death have run the gamut from fear and compliance to intensified bravery and courageous action. In what seemed to be an attempt to pacify the extremists, Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rahman Malik declared at a press conference: “If someone dishonors Islam in front of me, I will shoot him dead."
Yet an editorial in the leading British daily, The Times, indicates that Taseer’s heroic act has likely inspired the courage of others. “His support for Mrs. Bibi was a far braver act than it should have been. Bravery can be fatal in Pakistan, but as shown by the tens of thousands who defied intimidation to throng his funeral, it is far from uncommon.”
Indeed, even as 500 Muslim clerics signed a statement forbidding true Muslims to mourn the death of the fallen governor, thousands flocked to Taseer’s funeral. Joseph Francis, who has advocated for the rights of Christians in Pakistan for years, led a delegation of 200 Christians to the funeral, showing unabashed support for the man who had spoken so bravely for the minority community.
The courageous example of Salman Taseer should compel every Christian in every pew throughout the United States to speak out. If this Muslim man had the courage to voice his support for the unjustly imprisoned Asia Bibi, to put his very life on the line, to risk a volley of twenty-seven bullets to his back, then can we really ask anything less of ourselves? Asia is our own sister in Christ.
And this hounded, harassed, singled-out, and mistreated woman still awaits her appeal hearing in her prison cell in Sheikhpura, roughly 25 miles from the graveyard where her defender lies. The courageous voice that once spoke so strongly for her release has been brutally silenced. For her, his death must feel like the death of hope.
But it’s my prayer that the death of Salman Taseer will signal the beginning of a massive international outcry against the injustices suffered by the Christian Church in Pakistan.
According to figures quoted in Daily News and Analysis in India, 131 people are being held in jails across Punjab on blasphemy charges. Of those, eleven have been sentenced to death, including Asia Bibi.
Daily News and Analysis reports, “Though no one has been executed after being convicted under the controversial law, 35 people, including Taseer, who were accused of committing blasphemy or defending those charged with blasphemy have been killed between 1990 and 2011. They were either victims of extra-judicial killings or found dead in prison in suspicious circumstances.”
We Are All Asia Bibi
The previous experiences of former “blasphemers” should apprise us of one thing, at least. Right now, Asia Bibi’s life is in greater danger than it ever has been. Already she faces a threat of a suicide attack from the Moaviya group, a militant Islamist organization. And now, more than ever before, she needs our prayers, our voices, our actions, whatever we can do to speak out in her defense.
In a way, we are all Asia Bibi. Whatever kind of Christian you are, whatever kind of person you are, whatever faith you subscribe to, it hardly matters. The same radical fundamentalist Islamists seeking the death of an innocent woman in Punjab province would not spare any of our lives in a similar circumstance.
In recent months, radical Muslims have spilled the blood of Christians throughout the world. A suicide bomber detonated in a Coptic church in Egypt, leaving twenty one Christians dead. Fifty-one worshipers and two priests were killed in an attack on Our Lady of Salvation Cathedral in Baghdad. Attacks on churches in Nigeria on Christmas Eve killed thirty eight people.
For now, Christians in the United States can breathe easily when we walk into services on Sunday morning. It might not always be so easy. The clock is ticking, and radical Islam is on the rise throughout the world, threatening the Church internationally.
For us, right now, to speak out bravely costs nothing. Not one of us is risking twenty-seven bullets to the back for speaking out on behalf of Asia Bibi. But if we wait, if we stand by and watch in silence while our sister is executed or murdered in Pakistan, while the blood of our fellow believers spills across church pews in Iraq and Egypt, the peril they face may soon become our own peril. Someday the cost of courageous action on behalf of another may be great, and we may be forced, like Salman Taseer, to pay dearly for it.
Kristin Butler has visited with Christian communities in countries throughout South Asia and the Middle East, including Pakistan. She is a contributing writer at Crosswalk.com and covers religious freedom and human rights issues at BreakPoint.org. For more on these subjects, visit her website at kristinbutler.net or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Rotator image by AP Photo.)