Kirk calls on government to protect persecuted woman

Asia Bibi had been on death row in Pakistan since 2010. Picture:  Handout / British Pakistani Christian Association / AFP/ Getty Images.
Asia Bibi had been on death row in Pakistan since 2010. Picture: Handout / British Pakistani Christian Association / AFP/ Getty Images.
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Scottish church leaders have added their voices to calls urging the UK government to offer asylum to a persecuted Pakistani woman and her family.

They said providing sanctuary for Asia Bibi, whose death sentence for blasphemy was overturned, would underline the country’s “continuing commitment to freedom of religion and belief”.

An open letter, signed by seven leaders including Rt Rev Susan Brown, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and Most Rev Leo Cushley, Roman Catholic Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, has been sent to home secretary Sajid Javid. More than 230 politicians across the world have recently added their signatures to a separate letter to the Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, calling for him to protect Asia Bibi.

The case was raised in Prime Minister’s questions yesterday by Labour MP Mike Kane, who was told by Theresa May that the government’s priority was her safety, but refused to comment further.

The church leaders said violent protests that have erupted in Pakistan after Asia Bibi’s conviction was quashed sharply highlights the dangers facing Christians in the country where blasphemy carries the death penalty. They reiterated a call on the home secretary to immediately give the Umeed Bakhsh family the right to remain in the UK because it was clear their lives would be in danger if they were deported to Pakistan.

The family – Maqsood, Parveen and their sons Somer, 15, and Areeb, 13 – fled to Glasgow in 2012 after their lives were threatened due to their Christian faith. However, the UK Government has repeatedly rejected their plea for asylum which has led to more than 92,000 people signing two petitions and the case raised in the House of Commons.

The charges against Ms Bibi date back 2009 when she went to get water for her and her fellow farm workers. Two Muslim women refused to drink from a container used by a Christian, and a few days later, a mob accused her of blasphemy. She was convicted and sentenced to death.

The letter states: “Asia was acquitted on 31 October, 2018. Although she has been reportedly reunited with her husband and three children, she needs round the clock protection as Tehreek-e-Labbaik has called for her to be hanged and there have been several cases of extra-judicial killings of people charged with blasphemy in Pakistan.

“The threat to Asia and her family and supporters is real. The root cause is, of course, Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws and we urge the UK Government to do all in their power to advocate for these laws to be amended to prevent their misuse and to promote tolerance and harmony between faith communities.

Scottish churches have connections with Pakistan that go back to 1857.

The letter states: “With all respect, we urge you and through you, the Home Office, to grant asylum to Asia Bibi and her family in recognition of the United Kingdom’s continuing commitment to freedom of religion and belief.”

It added: “This case has put into sharp focus the dangers facing Christians.”