A poor, illiterate woman named Aasiya Noreen* worked in the fields to help support her family of five children, two of them her own and three of them her husband’s from a former marriage.
Aasiya was a Christian. A Catholic. Her family were the only Christians in the small village where she lived some thirty miles outside Lahore, the capital of the Punjab in the Islamic state of Pakistan. The Christians of the region were an underclass, traditionally assigned to menial jobs.
One hot summer’s day in June, 2009, Aasiya was harvesting berries along with some Muslim women. They all became thirsty. The Muslim women sent Aasiya to fetch water from a well. Aasiya found a battered tin cup abandoned near the well, and had a drink from it before refilling it and carrying it to her fellow workers. One of them accused her of drinking from the cup and so making it unclean. Christian lips should not contaminate a cup that Muslims drink from. All the Muslim women agreed on that.
A dispute arose. Which was the one true religion? The Muslim women knew that Islam was the truth. Aasiya knew that Christianity was the truth. She dared to say (according to her own account), “Jesus Christ died on the cross for the sins of mankind. What did your Prophet Muhammed ever do to save mankind?”
The Muslim women were deeply offended. They went to their imam and told him that the Christian woman Aasiya Noreen had insulted the Prophet Muhammad.
The imam took action. He gathered together a number of good Muslims willing to defend the Prophet and the true faith of Islam, and led them to the house where Aasiya and her family lived. They set upon her and her husband and her children with righteous blows. The police arrived in time to save the Christian family from being beaten to death. The avenging mob agreed to spare them on condition that the police laid a charge of blasphemy against the woman. The police duly arrested her and put her in jail, where she languished for more than a year before she was brought to trial in November, 2012.
Aasiya told the court that the woman who accused her of blasphemy had a grudge against her, resulting from an old quarrel, and the accusation was made out of a desire for revenge. The judge did not accept her story as a defense. He also chose to overlook inconsistencies in the testimony of the witnesses against her. He decided that she was guilty of blasphemy and sentenced her to death. She was to be hanged for blaspheming against the Prophet Muhammad whose name is never mentioned by a Muslim without having peace wished upon him.
She was the first woman ever to be condemned to death in Pakistan for blasphemy – her crime being considered so heinous that even death was not sufficient punishment. She was also to pay a fine equivalent to $1,100. She and her family had never in all their lives possessed a sum approaching $1,100. Nor did they know of any way they could raise it.
When the verdict was pronounced, the crowd in the court rose to its feet, applauding and shouting “Yes, kill her! Kill her! Allahu Akbar!”. And yet more enthusiasts for justice, more celebrants of the glory of God, broke down the doors to swarm into the court, their furious, triumphant shouts swelling the chorus of “Allahu Akbar!” The greatness of their merciful God could hardly have been more passionately attested.
Assiya’s husband, Ashiq Masih, appealed the verdict. He and Aasiya hoped that the High Court would at least suspend the sentence.
There was a man in a high position who was deeply moved by the fate of Aasiya and determined to do all he could for her. He was Salmaan Taseer, the governor of the Punjab. He persuaded the president of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari, to come to her rescue. In December 2012, Taseer publicly announced that if the High Court did not suspend her sentence, the president would pardon her. And Zardari would have done so, but the Lahore High Court hastened to issue a stay order against a presidential pardon.
So Aasiya remained in prison in Lahore, in solitary confinement in an 8 by 10 foot windowless cell.
At first the governor would visit her, with his wife and daughter. But then the court ruled that only her husband and lawyer could see her.
On January 4, 2011, Salmaan Taseer was assassinated by one Mumtaz Qadri who resented the governor’s concern for the blasphemer. (He was hanged for the crime in February 2016.)
The Minister of Minority Affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti – himself a Christian, and the only Christian member of the cabinet – was so disturbed by the case that he set about doing all he could to get the laws of blasphemy changed. He announced that he was prepared to die fighting for Aasiya Noreen’s release. He received many death threats, and on March 2, 2011, he was shot dead in his car near his home.
Many times Aasiya’s appeal was postponed. In October 2014, the High Court finally heard her case – and upheld her death sentence. Her husband then appealed to the President. But he was restrained from issuing a pardon, so her lawyers appealed to Pakistan’s Supreme Court. In July, 2015, the Supreme Court suspended her death sentence “for the duration of the appeals process”.
Hundreds of Pakistanis have publicly protested against her being still alive. An imam offered $10,000 reward to anyone who would kill her, and apparently some 10 million citizens declared themselves ready and willing to do the noble deed. Assiya’s family have gone into hiding, and they fear for her safety and survival if she were to be released.
That is how the matter stands at present.
Aasiya Noreen is under sentence of death for taking a drink of water from an old cup on a hot day, and saying something she had been taught to believe, to some other women who had been taught that it was something that should not be believed and should not be said.
For a drink of water, for fantastic rumors about “Jesus” and “Muhammad”, lives ruined and lost.
*Aasiya Noreen is usually called “Asia Bibi” in press reports. “Bibi” simply means “woman”.