Last week, one of the most long-awaited court rulings in Pakistan’s modern history was delayed. Asia Bibi, a Christian woman, stands accused of blasphemy, for which the penalty is death. Like many such cases, it rests on a flimsy legal basis. But it also stirs intense sectarian feeling. One Islamist group says they will take to the streets if Bibi is acquitted.
I met Archbishop Sebastian Shaw of Lahore in London, on the day scheduled for Bibi’s supreme court hearing. The day before, it was announced that one trial judge has had to withdraw because of his involvement in a related case. The hearing might be months away.
Archbishop Shaw says that Bibi’s acquittal would assure Pakistan’s minorities “that there is some supreme authority that can give justice”.
It would be a much-needed reassurance. According to the charity Open Doors, Pakistan is the sixth worst country for anti-Christian persecution. (Only the police states of North Korea and Eritrea, and the killing fields of Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, are worse.) Some of the persecution is open: there have been attacks on churches and terrorist outrages such as this year’s Easter Sunday suicide attack in Lahore, in which 75 died (most of them Muslims).
And yet Archbishop Shaw seems confident that life will improve for Pakistan’s Christians. the archbishop is genial and almost twinkly-eyed even when discussing his job’s impossible demands; I am almost surprised when he admits to having “sleepless nights.” Nevertheless, he speaks about the future with much less angst than many a Christian leader in Europe. That may be partly because his own diocese – the largest, numerically, in the country – is rapidly growing. This year five new priests were ordained, he tells me proudly: the largest crop for more than 20 years. Three new parishes have opened.
Archbishop Shaw also thinks the harsh treatment of Christians may begin to ease. Along with Anglican, Hindu and Sikh leaders, he recently appealed to President Mamnoon Hussain to review the blasphemy law, which has been in place since 1994. Archbishop Shaw was encouraged by the President’s response, and is “very hopeful that now the government realises the misuse of blasphemy law, and is ready to pass legislation to stop the misuse.”
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