Trade, Blasphemy and Safe Havens

Babette Francis - ONLINE Opinion, 5 December 2014

It is not only in the Middle East and in areas under the control of ISIS that Christians and other minorities are suffering persecution. Pakistan, our friendly cricket-playing Commonwealth country is a major offender. In late November, the Christian news agency, BosNewsLife, reported that the European Parliament had demanded that Pakistan withdraw its blasphemy laws after Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five, lost her appeal against the death penalty. Dutch legislator and Member of the European Parliament, Peter Van Dalen, urged Pakistan to free Asia Bibi:

"Asia Bibi has already spent four years on death row, though she is innocent," said Van Dalen, an MEP of the ChristenUnie (Christian Union) party in the European Parliament. "She should be released". He said that Pakistan could either grant her a presidential pardon or speed up the process in front of the country's Supreme Court. "I expect Pakistan to take action. Free Asia Bibi now."

Bibi was detained in 2009 after she reportedly told Muslim co-workers that Jesus Christ is alive and that He "sacrificed His life on the cross for our sins." She allegedly made the remarks while working in the fields for a Muslim landowner. Besides "insulting Prophet Mohammad" she was accused "of contaminating" the well by Muslims. Asia Bibi has denied wrongdoing.

Van Dalen said her case underscored it was "rightly so" that the European Parliament demanded the withdrawal of Pakistan's controversial blasphemy legislation. "There are hundreds of Asia Bibi's," he added. "The blasphemy laws put a blanket of fear over Pakistan society and are misused by extremists."

Van Dalen argued that the blasphemy measures are against human rights treaties Pakistan signed in exchange for trade deals with the European Union. "A country doesn't receive those benefits easily. I therefore request the new European Commissioner for Trade [Cecilia] Malmstrom to quickly launch an investigation into the obligations that belong to the Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP)" .

Prime Minister Tony Abbott should also ask his Ambassador for Women, Natasha Stott Despoja, to take up the cause of Asia Bibi.

The GSP allows developing country exporters, including Pakistan, to pay less or no duties on their exports to the EU. This gives them vital access to EU markets and contributes to their economic growth, according to the European Commission. However there should be "no trade benefits in case of religious persecution," stressed Van Dalen. Under Pakistani blasphemy laws, insulting the Koran or Prophet Mohammad can be punished with life imprisonment or death.

On December 4, Van Dalen handed over a petition with 40,000 signatures to Pakistan's EU ambassador, demanding Bibi's release.

Rimsha Masih was another Christian who was accused of blasphemy and tried for the crime of desecrating pages of the Koran. Evidence in court indicated she was mentally handicapped, could not read, and was about 14 years old. It was suggested a Muslim cleric had framed her, and she was eventually acquitted. However, the Pakistani government had to spirit her and her family out of the country or they could have been assassinated. She and her family now live in an undisclosed location in Canada.

The Pakistani government faces the same dilemma in regard to Asia Bibi - if she is acquitted by Pakistan's Supreme Court or receives a Presidential pardon, the government will have to find her a safe haven. Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani school girl winner of the Nobel prize for her advocacy of education for girls, lives in the UK with her family. She may be a Nobel winner, but neither she nor her family could live in safety in Pakistan. This is the brutal reality of life in a country with blasphemy laws. Salman Taseer, the Muslim Governor of Punjab, was assassinated for speaking against the blasphemy laws, as was Shabaz Bhatti, a Christian, who was Minister for Minorities in the Pakistani government.

Steve Khan, President of the Australian Association of Pakistani Christians, points out that there are more Muslims than Christians languishing in Pakistani jails on charges of blasphemy. The laws are blatantly used to pay off grudges between accuser and accused.

Pakistan is not the only country which has to find "safe havens" for those under threat by Islamists. The UK has a similar problem. Christian Concern is the trading name of CCFON Ltd, a Christian organisation in the United Kingdom which seeks to introduce a 'Christian voice' into law, the media and government. In November Christian Concern launched an initiative to help protect those in the UK who want to leave Islam but fear the consequences of doing so.

Entitled 'Safe Haven', the project is a response to the brutal treatment experienced by some in the UK who have left Islam and become Christians. It offers confidential advice and support to those considering leaving Islam and may even help individuals to relocate. An advertising campaign has been launched to highlight the availability of help.

The launch took place at Church House in Westminster on November 18th and was attended by members of the Church of England's General Synod and representatives of other organisations.

. One of those who spoke at this morning's event, Fiaz, explains: "My own household, my brothers, my parents, they don't want anything to do with me. They'd rather see me dead."

His own experience has moved him to highlight the problems that others in the UK - especially women - face if they want to leave Islam.

"When a Muslim girl turns away from the culture or the religion itself then it's all about honour. They are at greater risk than the men are," he warns. "There are hundreds and hundreds of women across the country who have turned away from Islam. And there are those who are still at home but they are too afraid to turn away because they don't feel that they have anywhere to go.

"Right now ... there are girls who are beaten, who are abused, and they are afraid to go out and tell others because they feel that if they did and they get caught, that's the end of the road. I came across a girl a year ago and her own brother raped her. She is still at home. If she had an escape route she would take it."

Another supporter of the project explains how, as a ten year old she thought about leaving home but "felt that I couldn't dishonour the family and leave, so I ended up being quite suicidal and didn't talk to anybody and spent all my time on my own."

Now she asks, "it's OK for people when they convert from another religion to Islam. Nobody says: 'I'm going to kill you'. They don't live in fear of their lives. Why is it that when a person leaves an Islamic background, becomes a Christian, why do we have to live in fear of our lives?"

Another woman tells of how, aged 12, she was sent to Bangladesh to enter a forced marriage. When that failed, another attempt was made when she was 16. She recalls:

"The memory still makes me feel physically sick. If I shut my eyes I can almost smell him and see him sitting opposite me, licking his lips with delight. Incredibly, in the eyes of the Muslim community, this appalling union was going to bring honour to my family. I only just escaped with my life and my sanity intact."

Another speaker at the November event, Nissar, left Islam whilst living in the UK but has received death threats, experienced recurring verbal abuse, had his car burned and house vandalised. When he first went to the police, he was told to "stop being a crusader and move."

'Need a safe place to stay?' An advertising campaign has been launched to coincide with the launch of Save Haven. Under the headlines, 'At Risk', 'Threatened', 'Afraid' and 'Fearful', the adverts read:

"If you've converted to Christianity and feel like you need to watch your back, Safe Haven can give you a safe place to stay."

Fiaz welcomed the launch of Safe Haven saying "if outsiders think that this is not happening in Britain, then they need to wake up because it is. An individual who has turned away from Islam will get killed. It hasn't happened yet but it will happen. The Safe Haven project is long overdue. It's time to act now," he warns.

Co-founder of Christian Concern and member of the Safe Haven team, Pastor Ade Omooba, also spoke at the launch event, saying: "The compassion of Jesus Christ drives us. Love demands that we do not turn a blind eye but stand with those who want to leave Islam. We want to see people set free from fear. At Christian Concern, we have heard of these appalling experiences too often. Something needs to be done."

Andrea Williams, Chief Executive of Christian Concern adds: "We are very grateful to all those who have given money and offered practical help to enable us to get this far. Please continue to pray for and support this vital initiative."

Meanwhile in Melbourne a Memorial Service will be held at 6.30 pm on 20th December at at All Saints Urdu-Hindi Church, 466 Glenferrie Rd., Kooyong, for Shahzad Masih and his pregnant wife Shama Bibi, who were burnt alive in a brick kiln in Pakistan on alleged charges of "blasphemy". The couple also had three young children.