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Persecuted Pakistani Christian woman builds new life in Canada

Nine years after being falsely accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad while engaged in a row with her neighbours, Pakistani-born Christian Asia Bibi and her daughters have been relocated from Lahore to an undisclosed safe location in Canada where they are now all living together.

Bibi had spent eight years on death row until October 2018 when Pakistan’s supreme court overturned her conviction, triggering violent mass protests throughout the nation and calls for both her and the judges in the case to be killed. Bibi was later released but put in legal limbo while awaiting the outcome of tense negotiations as her lawyers attempted to find a country that could grant her safe asylum.

Supporters of radical Islamist party, Jamiat Ulma-e-Islam, rally to protest the release of Asia Bibi (pictured) in Karachi, Pakistan. EPA-EFE//SHAHZAIB AKBER

Radical Islamists in Pakistan – a nuclear-armed nation of 215 million people, 98% of which are Muslim – have regularly called for Bibi to be publicly executed and activists say she would not have been safe had she stayed in the country.

The EU’s Special Envoy for Religious Freedom Jan Figel played a key role in negotiating her release and eventual immigration to Canada. Figel first met with Pakistani government officials both in Brussels and in Islamabad to secure Bibi’s safe passage out of the country.

For more than 30 years, Pakistan has struggled to quell the spread of radical Islam in the country following the introduction of harsh blasphemy laws by the country’s hardline former dictator, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s.

Since then, both internal and external Islamist organisations – including branches of the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Jamiat Ulma-e-Islam, and Lashkar-e-Taiba – have helped facilitate the growth of extremism and terrorism in the country. Religious fundamentalists and extremists, especially those influenced by Wahhabism, have regularly partnered with Pakistani state institutions to help further each other’s interests as they shape society around them.

When the situation became unbearable, the EU’s representative linked the human rights conditions in Pakistan to the GSP+ trade agreement between the European Union and Pakistan, an accord that specifically states.

“The EU supports democratic reforms and equal, inclusive citizenship for all people in Pakistan, including its minorities of Christians, Ahmadis, Hindus, Sikhs, and others.” Figel said in interviews with the media following Bibi’s release,” I realised how I may become a target of violent extremists…They killed Asia Bibi’s defenders in the past, they have many followers abroad as well.”

Three EU countries and Canada offered Bibi and her daughters to immigrate, a decision that Pakistan’s government readily accepted but one that was denounced by the country’s dozens of militant Islamist organisations, all of whom accused Islamabad of “caving into the European Union”.

That did not deter Bibi, however, as she and her daughters were granted asylum by the Canadian government following a public announcement by Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Paris during last year’s centennial commemoration of the end of the First World War.

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