Asia Bibi claims asylum in France

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Agencies report

Asia Bibi, the Pakistani Christian woman who spent eight years on death row on blasphemy charges, has filed an initial application for asylum in France and been invited to live in the country by Emmanuel Macron.

But speaking after a meeting with the French president in the Elysée palace on Friday, Bibi said she had not decided where she would settle. She was acquitted last year and granted a one-year leave of stay with her family in Canada. “I need time to think,” Bibi said. “Canada has been good to me. France has been very good to me – and France has given me a name. But for the time being I need to concentrate on my health, my family and my children’s education.”

Bibi’s case outraged Christians around the world and fanned divisions inside mainly Muslim Pakistan. The former farm worker was sentenced to death in 2010 after Muslim labourers working with her in the fields refused to share their water because she was Christian.

An argument broke out and one woman went to a local cleric to accuse Bibi of committing blasphemy against the prophet Muhammad. Two Pakistani politicians were later killed for publicly supporting her and criticising the country’s draconian blasphemy laws.

Pakistan’s supreme court overturned the conviction in October 2018, sparking violent protests in the country and calls for the judges in the case to be killed. The violence was led by the Islamic group Tehreek-e-Labbaik.

Bibi was also in France to promote her book Enfin Libre! (Finally Free!), co-written with Anne-Isabelle Tollet, a French journalist who helped publicise her case with two previous books and forming an international support committee in 2015.

“I was very honoured to be received by the president, to be next to him, and to be invited to live here,” Bibi said, sitting alongside her daughter Eisha, 21, who is disabled. She was also accompanied on the trip by her husband Ashiq, 58, and her second daughter Eisham, 20.

“France is a symbol for me,” she said. “It was the first country in the world to really support me, and the country from which my name became known.” Bibi said she was also deeply honoured earlier this week to meet the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, who presented her with honorary citizenship of the city.

An Elysée official said France was “ready to welcome” Bibi if she wished, providing she met the criteria for asylum. French rules require asylum seekers to submit a request to an independent state agency, Ofpra, which decides whether it should be to granted.

It is understood that Bibi filled in the appropriate forms with her family members on Friday. Although she said she had not received any recent death threats, Islamic extremists have pledged to pursue and kill her.

In Canada, she lives with her husband and daughters in a three-bedroom apartment in an undisclosed location. She told French media this week she was hopeful things would change to allow her and her family to return to Pakistan one day. “I really hope for it, just the way I kept hope when I was in jail that one day I was going to be free,” she said. Bibi said she was grateful for the prayers of fellow Christians around the world who had helped her remain strong before her release.

In her book, Bibi recounts how she was kept chained in prison and jeered at by other detainees. A devout Catholic, she said she had never committed blasphemy: “I cannot even think of insulting any prophet. I didn’t say anything. It was all about a glass of water.”

According to another media report, Aasia Bibi said she was hopeful things would change to allow her and her family – her husband, Ashiq, 58, and her daughters Eisham, 20, and Eisha, 21, who is disabled – to return to Pakistan one day. She also has three other children.“I really hope for it, just the way I kept hope when I was in jail that one day I was going to be free,” said Bibi.

The allegations against Bibi date back to 2009, when Muslim labourers working with her in the fields refused to share their water because she was Christian.

An argument broke out and a woman went to a local cleric to accuse Bibi of committing blasphemy against the prophet Muhammad, an incendiary charge in Muslim-majority Pakistan. She was sentenced to death the following year but acquitted by the supreme court in 2018.

In her book, Bibi recounted how she was kept chained in prison and jeered at by other detainees. A devout Catholic, she said on Tuesday that she had never committed blasphemy. “No way… I cannot even think of insulting any prophet. I didn’t say anything. It was all about a glass of water.”

In Canada, Bibi lives with her husband and daughters in a three-bedroom apartment in an undisclosed location. She said she had not recently received any direct threats. “I did read in the newspapers that someone was threatening to kill me. But I just keep calm. I’m strong,” she said.

As for the immediate future, Bibi said she did not know where the family would go next. “I have not yet made up my mind,” she said. “I know the European Union is working very hard on my case and they are the ones who will decide where I am going to be living,” she said, adding she would “very likely” discuss possible French asylum at a meeting with the French president, Emmanuel Macron, on Friday.

Bibi hopes one day to help other people persecuted for their beliefs. “I feel that all of us, we should unite to help those people who are imprisoned under such blasphemy laws, not only in Pakistan but around the world.”