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EU Envoy’s threat of trade sanctions played crucial role in Asia Bibi’s freedom

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EU Envoy on religious freedom, Jan Figel, meets with Asia Bibi’s lawyer Saif ul Malook in Lahore, December 2017. (Photo: Jan Figel)

World Watch Monitor—Freed Pakistani Christian Aasiya Noreen, known to the world now as Asia Bibi, has pleaded for the many others like her accused of blasphemy who, she says, are still “lying in jail for years – their decisions should also be done on merit. The world should listen to them.

“The way any person is alleged (to have committed) blasphemy without any proper investigation, without any proper proof, that should be noticed. This blasphemy law should be reviewed and there should be proper investigation mechanisms while applying this law. We should not consider anyone sinful for this act without any proof.”

She made this appeal from her refuge in Canada through a series of answers she provided to the UK’s Sunday Telegraph.

Shortly afterward, the European Post released a video that it says was provided by Noreen, in which she speaks in her native Urdu about her faith and urges fair treatment for anyone accused of a crime.

It’s hard to get a specific tally of the numbers known to be imprisoned, either awaiting trial -sometimes for years – for blasphemy, or already convicted. Many are Muslims. One figure World Watch Monitor saw quoted but could not get confirmed, after Asia Bibi was finally freed in May, was that Christians make up 17 of the 40 current ‘blasphemy’ prisoners. Christians form around 2% of Pakistan’s total population according to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, its Co-Director Gina Zurlo told World Watch Monitor.

One couple who hit the spotlight immediately after Asia Bibi’s acquittal was Shafqat Emmanuel and his wife, Shaguftah, of Gojra, Punjab, both accused of sending blasphemous text messages. Shafqat has to use a wheelchair and has a catheter, after his backbone was fractured in an accident in 2004. Shaguftah was the main breadwinner for their four children.

Lawyer Saif ul-Malook, who – at the risk of his own life – defended Asia Bibi and successfully argued her appeal in Pakistan’s Supreme court, then promptly left Pakistan for the Netherlands (he was reported to have said that he was forced to flee) but said that he would return if her successful appeal was challenged. At the same time, he said he would now take up Shafqat and Shagfuftah’s case.

‘Justice and dignity for all Pakistanis’

The Sunday Telegraph article also referred to the crucial role for Asia Bibi’s freedom played by the EU Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB), Jan Figel, from Slovakia, who’s worked tirelessly on her case, as well as for prisoners in Sudan and other countries.

He told World Watch Monitor that he had tried to visit Pakistan in his new role ‘from the start’ but that it had taken a year until a Pakistani high-level delegation (Minister of Trade and Attorney General) had visited his Brussels office. They invited him to Pakistan.

(In May 2018 Pakistan’s then-Minister for Interior, Ahsan Iqbal, who is known to support minority groups, survived an assassination after meeting with a group of Christians. Seven years earlier both the then-Governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, and the Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti were targeted and killed for defending Asia Bibi). That particular Islamist network has many members outside Pakistan.

Following her acquittal Asia Bibi was detained for another seven months. Mr. Figel told the Sunday Telegraph “I think Imran Khan’s government and Pakistan’s military used this delay to get the situation in the country under real control.”

In December Canada’s Prime Minister Trudeau publicly announced willingness to offer asylum at the Peace Centennial of World War I.

In January, in Pakistan’s capital, the “Islamabad Declaration” signed by over 500 Muslim clerics, publicly condemned terrorism, violence committed in the name of religion and fatwas (sacred edicts) widespread by radical Islamic leaders. Fides reported that “observers said it represents a turning point especially in the attitude towards religious minorities and sects such as Ahmadi Muslims. In fact, Fides wrote, ‘the Declaration recognizes that Pakistan is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country, and notes that “it is the responsibility of the government to ensure the protection of the life of non-Muslim citizens in Pakistan”’.

In February, Pakistan’s Attorney-General again visited Brussels where he again met Jan Figel; the latter tweeted that he raised the fact that Asia Bibi, now freed by the Supreme Court, was still detained in effective ‘house arrest’.

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Pakistan’s Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari also visited Brussels. Figel liaised with Asia Bibi herself via Muhammad Amanullah, a human rights activist.

The EU Envoy confirmed directly to World Watch Monitor that the UK was not on the list of possible countries for her asylum, but that ‘there were a lot of rumours and problems around this’.

Asia Bibi was announced to have finally left Pakistan on 8 May, although it was not clear for a few days whether she had in fact joined her daughters who were already in exile in Canada.

Figel told WWM “Canada deserves international acknowledgement for its spirit of solidarity and real hospitality, also for the professionalism of its diplomacy and its immigration services. Security conditions are crucially important for Asia Bibi and her family”.

On June 25, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, signed the Fourth EU-Pakistan Strategic Engagement Plan (SEP) with the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini in Brussels.

Amongst points relevant to Asia Bibi’s plight were to “Develop mutually agreed co-operation on the implementation of the UN Security Council on Women, Peace and Security”, and (under ‘Democracy, Rule of Law, Good governance, and Human Rights’) the plan mentioned “Working together to ensure…protection of human rights at national and international levels” and “Enhancing…inter-faith dialogue and understanding to promote tolerance and harmony”.

EU Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief – role

Jan Figel, a former EU education and culture commissioner, was appointed in May 2016 when the post was created by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. Twice extended for an additional year, Figel’s current mandate ends next month.

A report by Polish MEP Andrzej Grzyb, accepted by the European Parliament, but yet to be formally implemented, argued that Figel had “developed effective working networks” within the EU institutions and praised him for “continuous engagement and co-operation and complementarity of actions with the EU Special Representative for Human Rights”.

It also recommended that the Special Envoy’s role needs to be substantially reinforced, and that his new remit should include extending his term to match that of Commission’s five-year term, and “consolidated with sufficient human and financial resources”.

Figel does not currently have a budget and formal status in the EU institutions, beyond serving as a special advisor to the EU’s Development Commissioner. His staffing budget covers minimal assistance, less than the German government’s Commissioner for Global Freedom of Religion.

Campaigners also argue that freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) is not given the importance it deserves in the EU institutions.

The MEPs’ report also recommends the setting up of a “regular advisory working group of member states’ FoRB institutions and European Parliament representatives, together with experts, scholars, and representatives of civil society, including churches and other faith-based organisations”.

After the US, Canada was among the first countries to appoint a Special Envoy who could focus on the issue of Freedom of Religion or Belief, Andrew Bennett, although his role per se did not last into Justin Trudeau’s government. Since then, the UK has appointed Lord Ahmad to the first-ever UK FoRB role, the need for which has recently been highlighted by the Bishop of Truro’s independent review into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s response to the persecution of Christians globally.

This summer, the Netherlands has appointed its own Ambassador with an emphasis on FoRB, Jos Douma, a former Ambassador to both Iran and the Holy See.


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