In photo: Asia Bibi and her daughter Esha with the Director of Open Doors France
In June 2010, Asia Bibi was convicted of blasphemy charges in Pakistan and sentenced to die. She waited eight years for an appeal hearing that was delayed repeatedly. Ultimately, Pakistan’s Supreme Court held a hearing and ordered her release, saying that the prosecution had categorically failed to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. After nine years of prayers from Christians around the globe, Asia was freed on October 31, 2018. She was able to leave Pakistan the following year.
Last February 28, an Open Doors team met with Asia Bibi in Paris. At a small gathering, Asia Bibi shared her heart and gave an update on her life and faith. Here’s what happened that special day:
When Asia Bibi enters a small conference room near Paris’ famous Champs-Élysées for a 30 minute session with foreign press, as well as international organizations who have raised awareness and supported her, a small round of applause rises up from the 20 people present. Asia walks slowly, with her teenage daughter Esha holding her arm – Esha has a disability. It’s endearing to see Asia’s love for the girl she never got to see grow up, all because she wanted to drink a cup of water when it was 40 degrees outside.
The journalists want her story. Who can blame them? Over the last ten years, Asia has become the face of persecuted Christians. The whole week she has been giving interviews to the French media to promote her book. Then there were the meetings with Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, and just before she came to the conference room, a meeting with French President, Emmanuel Macron.
“She is exhausted,” said Pauline Misconi, foreign rights manager from publishing house Groupe Elidia, while we were waiting for Asia’s arrival. “It has been a tough week for her, very overwhelming. But she is a strong lady and her strength really comes from God. She has shown that this week and also said it during the interviews.”
But when Asia sits down behind the table, she’s energetic, joyful, and obviously still glowing from her meeting with that charming President just a few minutes earlier.
Naturally, now the foreign press want to hear her story. But as an Open Doors team we thought about how we could give something to Asia. “What would brother Andrew say and give?” one of our team members asked. It’s not a difficult question. He would give Asia a Bible.
So we brought a beautiful Urdu Bible and also a shawl made by women from the persecuted church. Our French PR liaison, Clémence Martin, also took a special post card. It has a pen drawing on the back: a simple map of France with the Eiffel tower on Paris’ location, a line to a woman on her knees praying and another line to a veiled woman – Asia. The card is signed by Anike, one of the millions of people who faithfully prayed for Asia for all those years.
In photo: A card for Asia Bibi
We had never been able to sent this card to Pakistan and so it waited for five years to be hand delivered to Asia – if the day would ever come when she would be released.
And now it rested in Clémence’s lap. Was this the day we could give it to Asia? Show her the love of all those people who fought for her in prayer while she was alone in a dark prison cell? It wasn’t certain. Mrs. Misconi was more than willing to give us a few minutes with Asia alone, but the meeting with the French president wrecked the schedule.
There were only 30 minutes and they had to be shared with about 20 journalists. All we could do was pray, which we did.
The first thing we asked Asia was if she had a message for those who prayed for her so faithfully. She listens to the question, then smiles and fires her answer back to us. “Yes, I have a message for them. God is with them in the exact way He was with me. He does not leave his own.”
She speaks about how she and her family have been tested by God. “God has given my children a lot of patience,” she says, and looks at Esha. “Esha was only eight years old when I was arrested. God has seen her tears and given her a lot of patience.”
Esha’s eyes immediately turn red. A second later, she breaks down completely. She rests her head on her mother’s shoulder, who holds the microphone in one hand and with the other she comforts her child. “Come on,” she says softly in Urdu, while she smiles. “Your mom is with you, look at those people here. They have come to show you love.” Then she adds in English: “Smile, Esha.”
Esha lifts her head. She seems to be better already and the interview continues:
How did your time in prison change your faith?
“My faith has always been strong because my family had a lot of devotion, but it did get stronger because now I know that God is with me—and God doesn’t leave you alone, he is always with us.”
How is it possible to endure such difficulties in prison and not doubt God’s existence?
“I never doubted, because when I was born, the priest told my mother, ‘This girl is going to be tested by God’. And my parents kept telling me this story and I knew that this was going to happen someday.”
Did you realize you were a symbol of hope and faith while you were in prison?
“I had a lot of patience and hope in my heart while I was in prison. And I was certain I would be released one day because I was innocent. I knew that someday I was going to be free. When my father came to visit me, he said that I’ve been accused for the name of Jesus and I told him I would also be released in the name of Jesus.”
How did you feel about the killing of Shahbaz Bhatti, the minister who defended you?
“I have a very deep pain. He was innocent and I really cried. When the governor of Punjab Salman Taseer and then minister Bhatti [were murdered for standing up for me], I really felt the grief. The anniversary of Bhatti’s death is soon. Whenever I think of him I have tears in my eyes and have a lot of pain in my heart, but I still have the feeling that he is still alive by the side of God.”
Do you hope to live anonymously in the future?
“I’m free, but I do need security. I’m sure you understand. My wish in my life is that my children will have an education. Their education has suffered a lot.”
Did you enjoy meeting president Macron?
“I got a lot of affection from him. I felt like he was a member of my family. I never thought I would sit next to a president and talk to him! I have a lot of respect for him. And when I met the mayor of Paris, it was like meeting a sister. I got a lot of affection from her as well. It was like she had been waiting for me for ten years. The way she hugged me, was like a sister.”
Where will you live in the future? Will you stay in Canada or move to France?
“I haven’t decided yet. I have come to France, and I’m very busy. So, I just need some time to sit and think about it. Canada is a very good country and so is France.”
The conversation lasted for less than twenty minutes. It’s time for photos and we ask if we can give her the gifts. Mrs. Misconi and Asia give permission and our French team members Patrick and Clémence present her with the Bible and the shawl.
“For me?” she says. She is clearly overjoyed with the gift. “I’m very happy to meet you,” she says. “What about this card?”
In photo: The card is given to Asia Bibi
“It has been waiting to be given to you for five years,” we reply.
In photo: Asia Bibi with Clémence
Our co-worker Clémence hugged her. It’s a long embrace and Asia doesn’t care others want her photo. In that moment, she feels the love that was waiting outside the prison walls for her. Someone tries to take away the card to be put with the rest of her belongings. “No, no,” she says, grabs the card, and puts it in her own purse.
To the untrained eye, it seems that Asia is doing well and is recovering well from her hardships – she seems courageous and bold. But anyone with experience knows that Asia’s journey on the road to recovery has only just begun. She needs space, unconditional love, prayer support and friends who don’t want her story but want her friendship. She wants to cook for her children, rest (“I am tired”) and heal (“I’ve had a ‘snow injury’ and need to get my health back on track”).
A few minutes later, when most journalists are packing their cameras and bags and leave to meet their deadlines, we show Asia a video of persecuted women and men praying for her. The video starts with images of watches and clocks. At one o’clock, the people stop doing what they are doing. They form circles and they bring Asia before the Lord’s throne.
Asia is almost speechless. “Wow, you all stopped your day to pray for me?”
A few minutes later, our Open Doors team stands outside to thank God for these precious moments with our precious sister. Asia and her daughter and a driver walk by. Nobody in the cafes or on the street pay attention to this Pakistani lady. They don’t realize so many extremists want her death because she received justice.
She waves at us. “Bye…” she says with a smile. Then she gets into her car and disappears into the night, still smiling, still waving, still in the hands of God.
Please continue to pray for Asia Bibi and her family as they make decisions about their future. And remember to pray for your brothers and sisters in Christ who remain under extreme persecution in Pakistan today.