Asia Bibi was desperately thirsty when she took a cup of water from an open well while working as a laborer in a fruit tree grove in rural Pakistan in 2009. The illiterate mother of five was one of only a few Christians working in a predominately Muslim labor force who were frequently subjected to discrimination for their beliefs. When Bibi dipped her cup back into the well for another drink of water, the Muslim workers chastised her for contaminating the water meant for Muslims only, according to her memoir Blasphemy: Sentenced To Death Over A Cup of Water as told to French journalist Anne-Isabelle Tollet who co-authored the book. An argument ensued and someone cried “blasphemy,” accusing Bibi of “defiling the name of the Prophet Mohammed.”
She was beaten, arrested and sentenced to death by hanging. Nine years later, after global outrage and pleas for her release from presidents, prime ministers and popes, a Pakistani court acquitted her of the crime, citing lack of evidence that she actually said anything about the prophet. The court quoted Shakespeare's King Lear in its belief that Bibi had “been more sinned against than sinning.”
But Bibi has not yet been set free out of fear for her safety and continued protests by Pakistan's Tehreek-e Labbaik Islamist movement, which has called for Pakistan's supreme court to review the acquittal. Days of rage and death threats ensued in Islamabad and Lahore, sending Bibi's husband and children into hiding. Even her lawyer Saiful Mulook fled the country to escape death threats. He is now in the Netherlands pending an asylum request in that country.
Now it looks like Bibi might find refuge in Italy after her husband Ashiq Masih released a video statement through the Catholic group Aid To The Church In Need or ACN. In the message, Masih, sitting beside the couples daughter Eisham, who was working alongside her mother when she was beaten and arrested, asks Italy, in addition to America, Canada and other European nations for refuge.
“I appeal to the Italian government to help me and my family leave Pakistan,” Masih told ACN. “We are extremely worried because our lives are in danger. We don't even have enough to eat because we can't go out to buy food.”
Italy's interior minister Matteo Salvini, who has a long anti-Islam track record, said Italy would do what it could to secure Bibi's freedom and safety. "I want women and children whose lives are at risk to be able to have a secure future, in our country or in other Western countries, so I will do everything humanly possible to guarantee that," Salvini said in an interview with a local Italian radio station. "It is not permissible that in 2018 someone can risk losing their life for a hypothesis of blasphemy."
He added that if given asylum in Italy, Bibi and her family would be provided with similar protection that is generally afforded to those under death threats by the Mafia. More than 200 people are currently under round the clock protection in Italy.
In February, ACN lit the ancient Roman colosseum red in a ceremony in Rome to pray for Bibi and other persecuted Christians during which Pope Francis met with Bibi's husband and children and told them, “I often think of your mother and pray for her.” ACN says they plan to dye the Venice lagoon red if Bibi is not released and allowed to leave Pakistan.