Lahore (Agenzia Fides) – “The visit of Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran is a great encouragement to Christians in Pakistan. It comes at a critical moment, in which there are increasing social and religious tensions, for the matter of Asia Bibi and for other reasons”, stated Archbishop Lawrence Saldanha of Lahore and President of the Episcopal Conference of Pakistan in an interview with Fides, on the occasion of the visit of Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, in Pakistan today.
The trip, set for some time, coincides with a delicate moment in time when the country is facing and discussing, at all levels, the case of Asia Bibi, the Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy. In the next three days the Cardinal will meet with the Catholic community, with various Commissions of the Episcopal Conference and will also speak at an interreligious meeting. Today he meets with the civil authorities, including the Minister for Religious Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, and the President of Pakistan Asif Ali Zardari. To Zardari Card. Tauran will convey the Holy See's intentions for the matter of Asia Bibi, carrying the hopes expressed in recent days of the appeal by Benedict XVI.
Archbishop Saldanha told Fides: “Right now we are concerned about the growing climate of intolerance. The tension has risen, following the manifestations and appeals of radical Islamic groups who wish to exacerbate the social and religious polarization. We hope that the mission of Cardinal Tauran may serve to calm tempers and contribute to a solution for the case of Asia Bibi”. “For the Church” - the Archbishop noted - “the fairest way for the final settlement of the case is a new trial before the High Court, to unequivocally establish her innocence. A clear legal pronouncement of innocence is the only way to silence the protests.”
Alternatively, explain sources of Fides, “a presidential pardon, rather, has the significance of freeing a person who admits to their guilt. This would cause a genuine revolt by Islamic groups. Within the feudal culture and by current Islamic interpretation, forgiveness is unacceptable: there must be an corresponding punishment to the offence, and offence to the Prophet is one of the most serious.”
Islamic religious movements have announced demonstrations against President Zardari for today and in the following days and have issued threats to Minister Bhatthi, who dedicated himself completely to the case of Bibi. Today the President finds himself in a very difficult position, due to pressure subjected by Islamic groups that threaten a religious revolt. According to Fides sources, just to ease the tension of the moment, the President should take the time and not grant any pardon immediately. Some lawyers have also pointed out that, at the procedural level, the pardon may be granted only after the pronouncement of all three levels of court in existence (Tribunal of First Instance, High Court and Supreme Court).
Meanwhile, projects and proposals circulate for the revision of the blasphemy law – to be discussed in Parliament – which intend to prevent abuse. Parliament is considering directly assigning the investigations for crimes of blasphemy to the High Court (second level), to overcome the risks of summary judgements at the first level, influenced by external pressures and to introduce the requirement of the burden of proof on the accused. (PA) (Agenzia Fides 25/11/2010)
If pardoned, the life of Asia Bibi is in danger: radical Islamic groups raise their aim
“If the President grants her the pardon, Asia Bibi will be discharged but her life will be in extreme danger. Radical Islamic leaders state that if someone who is guilty of blasphemy has been released that they will take their own justice. Anyone may kill her to defend the name of the Prophet, thus attaining the promise of paradise”, is the alarm raised to Fides by Tahira Abdullah, a Muslim and human rights activist, a prominent advocate of a Pakistani civil society forum which brings together Muslim and Christian organizations committed to human rights. Meanwhile today, the Minister for Minorities Bhatti presented his report on the matter of Asia Bibi to President Ali Zardari, who will decide on the pardon. Tahira Abdullah explained to Fides civil society's point of view: “We are in favour of the success of Asia Bibi's appeal process in the High Court of Lahore. I think it was a mistake to induce her to ask for clemency, while the case is still before the judge: this means an implicit admission of guilt. But Asia Bibi is innocent, has not committed any crime, nor any sin against the Prophet and against the Koran. I have full confidence in the justice of the High Court and also of the Supreme Court. So I think we should hold a new trial: to definitively and unequivocally establish her innocence.”
“If she is granted a pardon, we strongly urge the government to safeguard her life”, she remarked. In Articles 295b and 295c of the Penal Code of Pakistan, which constitute the so-called “anti-blasphemy law”, the activist told Fides: “Articles 295b and 295c of the Penal Code were promulgated by the dictatorial regime of General Zia, not voted on by the people. No Parliament has ever voted and approved them. They are thus de facto laws that are to be urgently removed. We advocate, instead, to keep articles 295 and 295a that safeguard blasphemy against all religions.”
At this stage the voices of Islamic extremists are getting stronger and stronger: in an unprecedented move, religious Islamic schools of distinct thought, the 'Deobandi' and 'Barelvi', have issued a joint statement in which they warn President Ali Zardari of conceding a pardon, because of external pressures, “to a woman guilty of blasphemy.” This decision, warn the radical leaders, “will have unforeseeable consequences,” announcing protests and public reaction across the country. The same view was expressed by the Conference of the “Jamiat Ulema of Pakistan” (JUP), representing more than 30 religious parties and radical Islamic organization Tahafuz Namoos-e-Risalat Mahaz (TNRM).
Meanwhile, local sources tell the story of a Christian shot dead in recent days in Punjab, in the Narowal district, north of Lahore: the 22 year old Latif Masih was gunned down by two assassins, “probably for being accused of desecrating the Koran,” local police said.
Francis Mehboob Sada, a Catholic, director of the Christian Study Centre in Rawalpindi, engaged in the defence of religious minorities, commented to Fides: “We do not fear threats from fundamentalist groups. We will continue our struggle for civility. We are comforted by the support of moderate and enlightened people of Muslim civil society, at political, civil and legal levels.” (PA) (Agenzia Fides 23/11/2010)