By The Associated Press
Aasia Bibi, a Christian mother of five, is sitting in a Pakistani jail awaiting a death sentence for blaspheming the prophet Muhammad—and an appeal by the pope hasn’t saved her. Asra Nomani on a horrifying case.
The email zipped across the globe from a Catholic nun of the Sisters of Loretto, living in rural Pakistan, to Sister Anna Koop, who was visiting their home order in rural Kentucky. The subject line: “Punjab: Christian Woman Sentenced To Death For Blasphemy.”
Sent Nov. 11, the nun’s message told the story of a Catholic farm worker, Aasia Bibi, convicted of violating antiquated blasphemy law propped up by Pakistan’s Islamist political parties. Allegedly, when some women workers pressured Aasia to renounce her Christian faith and accept Islam in the summer of 2009, Aasia responded that Jesus had died on the cross for the sins of humanity and she asked them what Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, had done for them. Her crime, blaspheming the prophet, carries a mandatory death sentence.
Koop, a 72-year-old nun who signs her emails “Peace to you,” was horrified by the news. Last year, she left the homeless shelter where she lives and works outside Denver to visit the four Pakistani nuns in her order living in Pakistan, and she feared not only for Aasia, a mother of five, but also the sisters in her order and the country’s other estimated 2.8 million Christians, who make up about 2 percent of the population.
Last year, the Sisters of Loretto in Pakistan pooled their resources to give the archdiocese of Faisalabad a 21st century-style gift for the 50th anniversary of the archdiocese: a website, complete with a catchy jubilee sing-song in Urdu, the national language of Pakistan. A website message they wrote: “We Hope this online experience will touch your heart and soul.”
“There is so much violence directed toward Christians” in Pakistan, says Koop. “It’s hard to know where that might strike next.” She tapped away at her keyboard, sending emails around the world, trying to raise the alarm. On Nov. 17, Pope Benedict XVI called for Aasia’s release in his weekly public audience, saying that Christians in Pakistan are “often victims of violence and discrimination.”
The case of Aasia Bibi underscores the challenge of forging an Islamic identity in the 21st century that expresses a tolerant interpretation of Islam. The showdown is coming down to a sad clash of the nuns and the mullahs. And it’s a battle in which the mullahs must lose. My mother grew up going to St. Joseph’s Convent in the hill station of Panchgani, India, her brother going to St. Peter’s, and there is something valuable we can learn about other faiths—and ourselves—just by living peacefully together.
And there is something divinely radical that connects rebellious women within Islam and Catholicism. We both face an imbedded patriarchy. Catholic women have had more advances than we have had in Islam, but we have it easier on one front: We don’t have a Vatican. Last month, I spoke at the national conference of Call to Action, a Catholic group seeking reforms in the church. The title of my talk: “Bad Girls of Faith: The Daughters of Sarah and Hajar Standing Together to Reclaim the Feminist Tradition.” Thousands of years ago, our common histories say that Sarah and Hajar (or Hagar as she is known in Christianity and Judaism) feuded in, essentially, a chick fight that was a precursor to the interfaith troubles we have today. My theory: We could see progress if we stood together now. Soon after, I got one of the emails sent out by Sister Anna, the nun running a homeless shelter outside Denver.
The survival of the blasphemy of laws in Pakistan is a window into just how medieval aspects of Pakistan continue to be, betraying at least one example from the life of the prophet Muhammad. In one hadith, or tradition from the life of Muhammad, it’s said that when a man threw dirt on the prophet’s face, he just ignored the smear.