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Christians in Pakistan were praying as they awaited the conclusion of Supreme Court hearing Monday regarding the fate of Asia Bibi. For years, Bibi has been on death row for allegedly insulting the Islamic religion.
A panel of three judges, presided over by the President of the Supreme Court, Mian Saqib Nisar, will have to decide whether to confirm the death sentence or not, according to Fides news service. The verdict should be announced within a couple of days.
Bibi is the first Catholic woman to be condemned to death under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Her husband, Ashiq Masih, said on a visit to England that if she is released, she and her family will immediately seek sanctuary in one of several countries that have offered them exile, because it was too dangerous for them to remain in Pakistan, according to Catholic News Service. Ashiq, a builder from Sheikhupura, Pakistan, and his and Bibi’s youngest daughter, Eisham Ashiq, were guests in England of Aid to the Church in Need, a papal agency supporting persecuted Christians around the world.
They said when they visited Bibi in Multan Prison Oct. 1, she was in good health and praying constantly and reading Scripture. She received Communion in jail on the day of their visit. She believes she will win her freedom, they said.
“She is psychologically, physically and spiritually strong,” Ashiq told CNS. “Having a very strong faith, she is ready and willing to die for Christ. She will never convert to Islam. … She feels when she is praying, Jesus is encouraging and supporting her.”
The case dates to June 2009, when Bibi, a farmhand, was accused of blasphemy against Islam after Muslim women objected to her drinking from a common water supply. The report said:
Eisham told CNS that, as a 9-year-old girl, she witnessed her mother being severely beaten by a Muslim mob in the aftermath of the accusation. Bibi was rescued by police, only to be sentenced to death for violating Section 295C of the Pakistan Penal Code, which makes insulting Muhammad a capital offense.
No one has been executed under the law so far, CNS noted, but Christians who are falsely accused often are lynched or spend many years in prison. Reportedly, millions of Islamic militants are willing to kill Bibi to obtain a reward of 500,000 rupees offered by a Muslim cleric for her murder.
Bibi’s final appeal will be heard by a special three-judge bench. The hearing represents her last chance at avoiding a death sentence for blasphemy, CNS said. If the court upholds the execution order, the only option open to her lawyers will be a direct appeal for clemency to President Imran Khan.
But the judges an the president may feel haunted by the assassinations in 2011 of Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab, who said he would fight for her release, and Shahbaz Bhatti, the federal Minority Affairs Minister, who said he would seek the reform of the blasphemy laws to stop them being abused to persecute innocent Christians.
In February, Pope Francis received Ashiq and Eisham at the Vatican, and, according to Ashiq, encouraged them and told them, “Pass on my encouragement to Asia Bibi and bless her as well.”
The Pope said he is praying for her and that he believed she would be freed very soon, Ashiq said.
“It is our firm hope that, thanks to continuous prayer, she can be released. I am sure that the panel of judges will examine the case without prejudice and that justice will be done, without being influenced by external pressures,” Dominican Fr. James Channan, who runs a Christian-Islamic dialogue center in Lahore, told Fides. “If she is released, it will also give great relief to all those who, in the world, have felt deeply involved in this case, praying for her, so that this innocent woman may finally have justice.