Mark Pickup

January 17, 2011

It all began with a silly argument in a field over water that resulted in a woman being sentenced to die by hanging.

Asia Bibi (45), her husband and five children were an ordinary peasant family living in the small remote village of Ittawali, Pakistan. What distinguished their family was that they were the only Christians in a Muslim village. That put them at a distinct disadvantage.

Asia and two other village women worked as straw pickers for a nearby landowner. One hot June day in 2009, Asia went to fetch drinking water. When she returned to the field where they were working, the two other women, named Asma and Mafia, refused to drink the water. They said it was unclean because an infidel fetched it (a Christian).

An argument broke out, tempers flared and insults were exchanged. It should have ended there in the field, but it did not.

Apparently Asia Bibi must have held her own against her two antagonists because they were in a mood for revenge. They were going to teach Asia a lesson and chased her home then stirred up other villagers. One Pakistan newspaper reported that Asia was dragged from her house and beaten in front of her children. The matter did not end there.

The same two women then went to the local mosque and told the Imam Asia had insulted the Muslim Prophet Mohammad during the argument in the field. The cleric took the matter to local police and Asia was arrested under Pakistan's draconian blasphemy laws. She spent the next 17 months in jail.


Last November, a judge convicted Asia of blasphemy, imposed a large fine and sentenced Asia to death by hanging. Her sentence was appealed to a higher court.

The punishment was so disproportionate to the crime many people could not believe what had happened. Many people are convinced of Asia's innocence of the blasphemy charge including Pakistan's Minister of Minority Affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti.

In the early days after the conviction, Pope Benedict appealed to Pakistan to release Asia Bibi from the sentence. There have been protests from other Christian groups decrying this injustice against a fellow-Christian.

Asia Bibi

Asia Bibi

On Dec. 10, Pakistani Christians rallied in front of the United Nations building and the Pakistan consulate in New York, demanding that Asia Bibi be released. Father Ilyas Gill of the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn led the procession. International pressure is building.

Back in Pakistan, militant Muslim extremists are demanding the sentence be carried out and, unfortunately, Pakistan's coalition government must rely on support from Muslim parties in Parliament.


The Imam of a large mosque in the city of Peshawar, Maulana Yousuf Qureshi, declared that if Asia Bibi's appeal to the high court is successful and she is found innocent of the blasphemy charge, then a large reward will be offered to whoever kills her. The spirit of revenge has even spread to Asia's family. Her husband and children have received so many death threats, they have gone into hiding.

Let's be clear: A Catholic sister is facing death for defending her faith. Asia is adamant she did not insult Mohammad. Her accusers say she did. Either way, an apology may be in order, not a death sentence. True justice makes a punishment fit the crime and this principle dates back to antiquity.


The Old Testament standard for justice of an "eye for eye" was not a call for revenge, but rather even-handedness in justice. It was intended to eliminate the get-even approach to justice practised in the ancient world. For example, we read in Genesis 4.23 where Lamech bragged to his wives that he killed a man for wounding him and a boy for bruising him. That was revenge, not justice.

Judges were to keep a sense of proportion in sentencing. It was eye for eye or a tooth for tooth - not a life for a tooth or death for an insult in a field. That is what will happen to Asia Bibi. All sense of justice has been lost.

Recently I wrote to Canada's foreign affairs minister to appeal to Pakistan's president to release her from her sentence.

I wrote to Immigration Minister Jason Kenney to offer the Bibi family asylum in Canada away from the grips of extremist mobs that would harm or kill them. We must stand up for those being led to their death.

I hope people would do that for me if I were in a similar situation to Asia Bibi. Wouldn't you?

Editor's note: Salman Taseer, governor of Pakistan's Punjab, and defender of Bibi was assinated Jan. 4 for opposing blasphemy laws.