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Why We Should Give Asylum To Asia Bibi

After a visit, in 2015, to detention centres in Thailand, where I saw some of the thousands of escaping Pakistani Christians and Ahmadis, caged like animals, and subsequently filmed by Chris Rogers for a BBC documentary, I chaired an Inquiry under the auspices of the All Party Group on Freedom of Religion or Belief.

In 2016, following evidence taking sessions and witness statements, we published a Report and submitted it to the Home Office, Foreign Office and Pakistan High Commission.

The Report’s central finding was that the Home Office is wrong to suggest that what is happening to the Christian minority is simply discrimination rather than persecution – and we highlighted the impact that this choice of word has on everything from asylum claims to humanitarian aid.

The flow of refugees has intensified after the assassinations, in 2011 of the Christian Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, and his Muslim friend, Salmaan Taseer, Governor of the Punjab, both murdered, after speaking out against the wrongful imprisonment, sentenced to death by hanging of an illiterate woman, a berry picker, and mother of five, Aasiya Noreen, commonly known as Asia Bibi.

In 2009 she had been arrested after triggering a dispute with Muslim women when she, an “infidel,” took a sip of water from a communal cup while harvesting a hot field. This is a throw-back to the untouchability of the caste system.

Asia Bibi was accused of blaspheming. And sentenced under section 295-C of the 1986 blasphemy law – a capital offence.

At the time the Muslim cleric Maulana Yousaf Qureshi announced a bounty of 500,000 Pakistani Rupees to anyone who would kill her.

The deaths of Minister Bhatti and Governor Taseer were the curtain raiser for an orgy of bombings, killings, rapes, imprisonment and abductions.

We should never forget the sacrifice of these two men who gave their lives for their people. In accepting political office Bhatti knew it could cost him his life.

Last month I visited Lahore and Islamabad, met many who knew both of those great men.

The Lahore Bar Council told me tat the unreformed Blasphemy Laws have frequently been used for revenge, for mendacious and vexatious purposes – with prosecutions having nothing to do with Blasphemy.

Those laws, following accusations, have led to more than 60 deaths and dozens of communal attacks.

I do not blaspheme and do not defend blasphemy – but laws that are based on a wholly disproportionate use of the death sentence; laws which are regularly appropriated for wrongful purposes; and laws that fail to recognise the place of the right not to believe or to hold a different belief does not make for a good or genuinely respectful society

In 1947, a year before the country signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Pakistan’s greatly admired founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah crafted a constitution which promised to uphold plurality and diversity and to protect all its citizens.

Jinnah said: “You may belong to any religion, caste or creed—that has nothing to do with the business of the State…Minorities, to whichever community they may belong, will be safeguarded. Their religion, faith or belief will be secure. There will be no interference of any kind with their freedom of worship. They will have their protection with regard to their religion, faith, their life and their culture. They will be, in all respects, the citizens of Pakistan without any distinction of caste and creed”. 

Pakistan was founded on principles of equality and justice.

What is now done to its own citizens, and done with impunity, makes a mockery of those high ideals.

The white in the nation’s flag is there to represent the country’s minorities but as those minorities suffer and Pakistan’s law enforcement agencies and frightened leaders fail to speak or to act justly its flag has been dragged low.

Failure to act jeopardises the country’s future and undermines the prospect of a diverse and respectful society.

In the face of a systematic campaign of visceral hatred Pakistan’s contemporary leaders have done little to uphold Jinnah’s vision – and, equally, there is little evidence that more than £2.8 billion of British aid, given over the past two decades, is doing anything to support beleaguered minorities, often the poorest of the poor, or to promote religious freedom or peaceful co-existence.

Since 2002 on 114 occasions I have raised questions or made interventions about Pakistan – the first, in 2002 when I asked the Government whether they agreed that “a good test of the democratic credentials of any government is the way they treat their minorities and uphold human rights?”

I highlighted that “over the past 12 months in Pakistan there have been 39 deaths, 100 injuries and nine attacks on churches, church buildings, hospitals and schools? Does she recognise that one of the continuing sources of persecution against that tiny minority in Pakistan has been the blasphemy laws?

Nine years later, in 2011, in the aftermath of Shahbaz Bhatti’s murder – for which no one has ever been brought to justice – Ministers were telling me:

 “The issue of religious tolerance is part of a wider attack on Pakistan’s democratic tradition. It is essential Pakistan supports political freedom wherever it is threatened.

And that

We see Pakistan as a country to which we are bound by longstanding ties, but also a country where we must put forward our values in a strong and effective way”

If a country cannot bring to justice the killer of a Government Minister what chance do the country’s persecuted, beleaguered and fleeing minorities have?

The following year, in 2012 I raised the killing of Shugufta Baber, a teacher at the Convent High School in Okara, her two sons and her sister Samina Bibi; the vulnerability of Christian women; and the failure to use UK aid to help beleaguered minorities.

Consider again that in the past twenty years we have given Pakistan £2.8 billion of aid – – the equivalent of £383,000 each and every single day. It is our biggest bilateral aid programme.

Yet precious little of this aid reaches the poorest of the poor in the country’s minorities – because the Government say they are “religion blind” and do not“discriminate”.

Every time I raise this issue they repeat the same mantra that they don’t “discriminate on grounds of religion”.

Yet Pakistan’s religious minorities are actively discriminated against– victims of violent persecution.

They live in abject conditions in slum “colonies” which DFID says it doesn’t even send its officials to visit. Why? Because it doesn’t discriminate.

How does this deliberate blind spot square with the fate of three Christian women from a village near Pattoki whose case I raised in 2013 when they were publicly beaten and humiliated?

Later that year I commended Baroness Warsi, then Minister for saying

that senior politicians in countries like Pakistan have a “duty” to denounce persecution and to set a standard for tolerance.”

In that same year 83 people were killed in a twin suicide bombing at the end of a service at All Saints Church in Peshawar.

Yet the Home Office say it’s not persecution and DFID says it won’t discriminate in favour of these minorities.

In 2014 I urged the Government to seek “a fair and just trial in the cases of Savan Masih, Shafqat Emmanuel and Shagufta Kausar, sentenced to death for blasphemy”

That same year I again raised the case of Asia Bibi, the failure to bring Minister Bhatti’s murderers to justice and the burning to death in Kot Radha Kishan of a Christian couple following allegations of blasphemy and in 2015 challenged an ideology that could lead  “to the burning alive in a kiln of a Christian couple in Pakistan by a mob of 1,300 people while their young children were forced to watch.”

In 2016 I raised the murder of Khurram Zaki who campaigned against sectarian violence and religious extremism.

In the same year at least 72 people were killed and more than 300 injured when a suicide bomb ripped through the parking space of a crowded park in Lahore where Christians were celebrating Easter Sunday. A Taliban faction claimed responsibility.

Later in 2016 I asked how we were reacting “following the statement of the Chairman of the Pakistan Senate’s Standing Committee on Religious Affairs that forced conversion of girls is taking place “across the country on a daily basis”, and (2) about reports of humiliation, torture and false imprisonment of girls from Christian backgrounds by police officers.”

And I asked about the honour killing of women, the exclusion of minority communities from full citizenship, and hate material in school text books – an issue I subsequently pursued at meetings with Ministers from the Foreign Office and Department for International Development.

In 2017 I asked the Home Office about the admission to the UK of hate preachers – one of whom celebrated the murder of Salmaan Taseer – and asked about the role of the Commonwealth; the case of  Taimoor Raza who had been sentenced to death after postings on social media; and the lynching of Mashal Khan, a student of Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan, for allegedly publishing blasphemous content online and expressing liberal and secular views

Earlier this year I asked about the evidence published by the Aurat Foundation of 1,000 forced conversions every year; about forced marriages in Sindh; the monitoring of madrassas known to promote hatred of minorities.

On April 18th, Lord Ahmad, the Government’s Envoy for Religious Freedom, wrote to me about the beating to death of a Christian, Sunil Saleem and said the Government didn’t “tend to raise specific cases”.

Well why not?

I also asked the Home Office Minister, Baroness Williams, whether she believed “it is safe to deport families, including children, to Pakistan when there is evidence that they have received death threats due to their religious beliefs; when they last considered whether there is persecution of particular minorities in Pakistan; and what conclusions they reached.

She replied that

“Claims are considered against any relevant caselaw and the background of the latest available country information”… “Crucially, decision makers must still consider the individual facts and merits of a particular case to determine whether or not that person qualifies for asylum.

In an oral exchange on October 15th  I said that having “seen first-hand the abject, festering conditions in which many of the country’s religious minorities live, and having heard accounts of abduction, rape, the forced marriage of a nine year-old, forced conversion, death sentences for so-called blasphemy” – and I referred to the case of Asia Bibi and children being forced to watch as their parents were burned alive – I asked the Minister: “how can the Home Office, in all those circumstances, continue to say that what is happening in Pakistan to religious believers and humanists is merely discrimination, not persecution?”

In reply she said that “each application to our asylum system should be dealt with in terms of the persecution that people might face.

But, that is the whole problem – notwithstanding everything I have just described, her own Department refuse to accept that there is persecution – and that is why asylum claims from these persecuted minorities are rarely allowed.

I therefore went on to ask specifically how many claims for asylum in the UK were successful in respect of religious minorities from Pakistan over the past five years.

The Minister said that 2,982 grants of asylum had been made but could not say how many came from religious minorities and that “the data required to answer the question is not recorded in a way that can be reported on accurately. …This data could only be obtained at disproportionate cost.”

 This borders on the absurd. This question should be asked; the information recorded and available to Parliament.

Cases such as Asia Bibi’s reveal a serious problem in the UK’s Asylum Policy when it comes to Christians fleeing genuine persecution.

In hiding behind the pretext that it “doesn’t discriminate” it ends up doing exactly that and reneging on its promises and commitments to support and protect the most vulnerable. By way of example, in 2017, of the 7,060 Syrian refugees the United Nations High Commission for Refugees recommended to the UK a mere 25 were Christians (0.35 percent).  And, of these, the Home Office only accepted eleven – meaning Christians made up only 0.23 percent of Syrian refugees resettled in the UK last year. So how many Pakistani Christians are among the 2982 given asylum in the UK last year?

And what of our craven refusal to offer asylum to Asia Bibi?

Recalling that Shahbaz Bhatti and Salmaan Taseer were both murdered for insisting on the innocence of Asia Bibi, I can feel nothing but huge admiration for Pakistan’s Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar, and Justice Asif Saeed Khan Khosa, both of whom I met in Islamabad last month and who, courageously, and with great integrity, acquitted and exonerated Asia Bibi – wrongfully sentenced to death and incarcerated for nine years.

Their refusal to be dictated to by lynch mobs, by failing to offer asylum because of what Tom Tugendhat MP, the Chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee says is a fear of reprisals, makes a mockery of British values of justice, human rights, rule of law, and religious freedom.

The bravery of Pakistan’s Chief Justice and Supreme Court Judges who exonerated and cleared the name of Asia Bibi is in marked contrast to those, in Pakistan and here, who have been cowed by lynch mobs and threats of violence – including, sadly, our own Government.

And what signal does this response send about our concern, or lack of it, for the plight of the other forty people said to be on death row in Pakistan for alleged Blasphemy?

While the Government of Pakistan has capitulated to the extremists in Tehreek-e-Labbaik and tried to set aside the verdict of the Supreme Court – our duty is to stand with the Judges and the rule of law.

Weren’t Tom Tugendhat MP, Rehman Chishti MP – former Vice Chairman of the Conservative Party and Government Trade Envoy to Pakistan – who has resigned over the issue –  and Lady Warsi –  all correct in condemning this capitulation to lynch mobs?

Shouldn’t the Government have taken their cue from Dr. Taj Hargey, Imam of Oxford Islamic Congregation, that Asia Bibi should be granted asylum in the UK and who spoke of “the deafening silence” from British people of Pakistani origin and of “our collective shame in not preventing her cruel incarceration.

The Government needs to say how it responds to Dr. Hargey; to key figures from their own Party; and how it intends to respond to the 200 parliamentarians and the 130,000 petitioners who have asked the Government to think again.

The letter from parliamentarians states: “We urge in the strongest possible terms the Government of Pakistan to guarantee safe passage for Asia, her family, and any of those under threat due to their part in the decision to acquit her, to any country that accepts them.”

The Times, in an editorial says that the silence of the British Government is “shameful” while a Daily Mail editorial says“This country has a proud tradition of taking in those who suffer religious persecution. Shunning Mrs. Bibi would make a mockery of that tradition.”

On whose side do we stand – the side of an innocent woman and the rule of law or on the side of the lynch mob?

On the side of those who whip up a frenzy of hate with demands made for executions and calls for the death of the courageous judges?

Or on the side of those who are unjustly persecuted?

Asia Bibi’s appeal for asylum is the litmus test.  Are we willing to stand up to those who persecute or not?

About Lord David Alton of Liverpool

Profile photo of Lord David Alton of Liverpool
For 18 years David Alton was a Member of the House of Commons and today is an Independent Crossbench Life Peer. He began his career as a teacher and, in 1972, while still a student, he was elected to Liverpool City Council as Britain’s youngest City Councillor. In 1979 he became the youngest member of the House of Commons and, in 1997, and when he stood down from the Commons, he was appointed a Life Peer. His motto on his Coat of Arms is taken from the Book of Deuteronomy: Choose Life.

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One comment

  1. Profile photo of Isaac Anderson

    Hear hear. Rescuing anybody from such stone age draconian laws should be any government’s duty. It is shocking to see the Foreign Office turning her down because of fear of Islamist violence.

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