Her name has been written, spoken and chanted thousands of times in recent years. Her story has been told in every corner of the planet. What a strange feeling it is to know someone without ever having met them! Asia Bibi has become a symbol: the symbol of the fight against the blasphemy law in Pakistan. Sentenced to death for drinking the same water as Muslim women, she spent 10 years in prison before being acquitted.
This is Asia Bibi—a Pakistani mother and Christian, a small woman of incredible strength, resilience and deep faith. Since her departure from Pakistan, little information has filtered out about her new life, except for the location of her current host country, Canada. And then one day, the news broke: Asia Bibi was going to come to France. Since the day before, and for several days since, she’s been giving interviews and going to official meetings. Received by the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, who made her an honorary citizen of the City of Paris, Asia Bibi will meet Emmanuel Macron on Friday, at the invitation of the Élysée, to inform him of her request for political asylum.
Filmed, sought after and photographed relentlessly over the past few days, Asia Bibi retains the after-effects of her imprisonment. Despite her fatigue, however, she smiles tirelessly. Although her answers are brief and sometimes laconic, her warm and friendly face and her deep gaze bear witness to what she has been through: long years of loneliness and, at times, discouragement. They also reflect her faith, on which she relied, and her trust and simplicity. Thanks to a French-Urdu interpreter (the language spoken in Pakistan, ed.), Aleteia interviewed Asia Bibi.
Aleteia: Asia Bibi, what is your story?
Asia Bibi: You must know my story already! But still today it seems unreal to me! As a Christian and a mother, my job was, among other things, to pick fruit as a farm worker. On June 14, 2009—I still remember the heat of the day—I drank the water from the well in the same cup as other women. Two of them accused me of defiling the water because I was a Christian. A few days later, I was accused of blasphemy. Then, I was tried and sentenced to death by hanging for blasphemy in November 2009, and in October 2014, the Lahore High Court upheld my conviction.
What went through your mind at the moment you learned of your conviction?
My children. They were very young at the time, and I felt a great sorrow. I told myself inwardly that it wasn’t possible, that I hadn’t done anything.
Convicted, you spent 10 years in prison. What was your daily life like?
I was very isolated, and I did everything I could to be extremely quiet. But, above all, at every moment I kept God in my heart. I prayed every day.
What kept you from collapsing?
I experienced it as a trial sent by God. When a human being is tested, the desire to succeed, to overcome the trial, is extremely strong. I knew that prayer would help me in this sense, and many signs encouraged me to pray. For example, one night I dreamt of a priest who made me recite verses from the Bible. When I opened my eyes, I remember being amazed that I no longer saw him. I thought that maybe God was sending me a sign that I should try to learn those verses which would help sustain me. So, that’s what I did. I read the Gospels very regularly.
Was there a passage in the Bible that was particularly encouraging to you?
Yes, the words that kept coming back to me were, “The Lord is your refuge.” Over and over again, it was the first psalm I came across.
Your husband, Ashiq, was also a faithful supporter.
Yes, he’s been a pillar for me all these years. He never let go of my hand, despite threats and difficulties. It was he who told me that a journalist, Anne-Isabelle Tollet, was the first to speak up on my behalf. It was he who told me that many people were interested in my case. He was also the one who told me that the pope was praying for me. I remember feeling intense joy! Our children were among the topics we talked about most often. Because of the threats against them, I wasn’t able to see them often. I would often ask Ashiq if they were still in school.
You were finally acquitted in the autumn of 2019, but an unprecedented wave of protests prevented you from leaving the country immediately. How did you feel about this outpouring of hatred?
My release has exacerbated tensions in a frightening way. But the hardest part was that I could hear them. I could hear everything they were saying. I could hear them chanting my execution, by any means necessary. But, incredible as it may seem, I kept my strength up. I wasn’t afraid.
Have you forgiven those who condemned you?
Yes, I’ve forgiven them. I’ve forgiven those 10 years in prison, away from my family. From the bottom of my heart, I’ve forgiven them.
In the cell you occupied for 10 years, there is now another Christian woman, Shagufta Kousar, sentenced to death on a charge of blasphemy.
She has my full support, and if my story and testimony can help her, I would be very happy. Shagufta Kausar is also a mother, and she is accused—along with her husband—of sending blasphemous text messages. It’s an accusation that is all the more implausible because they cannot write. But I know they’re in good hands: Saif-ul-Malook, the same lawyer who helped me, is defending them. Beyond Shagufta, all those who are still in detention today need to be helped. I’d like the world to unite behind this cause to obtain their release, whether they belong to minorities or to the majority. All must be heard! That’s my fight today: I believe that the anti-blasphemy law must be reformed. That’s what I wish to dedicate my life to from now on.
Yesterday you were granted honorary citizenship by the City of Paris, and you also indicated that you wanted to ask Emmanuel Macron for political asylum. Why France?
France is very dear to me because it is from France that people spoke up on my behalf. It was France that gave me the identity of Asia Bibi. I must also say that the ancient buildings, especially the cathedral of Paris which has survived for so many centuries, have seduced me a lot. I learned yesterday that Notre Dame had burned down last spring, and I was deeply saddened by it.
How do you see the future?
I wish we could all work hand in hand to reform the anti-blasphemy law in Pakistan. As far as my personal future is concerned, my most fervent wish is that my daughters may have access to education, that they be able to grow up in an educated environment and that they be able to fight for equality.
Do you feel free?
I constantly receive threats, but yes, I feel free.
What saddens you most today?
I was deeply saddened when I had to leave Pakistan, the country where I was born. It was after my liberation, and I know God showed me the way. But I firmly hold on to the hope that one day I will be able to return to my land.
Conversely, what brings you the most joy today?
I feel the greatest joy when I bow down before the greatness of God.