Canada is in negotiations to grant asylum to Asia Bibi, the Pakistani Catholic who was acquitted of blasphemy charges after spending eight years on death row.
Bibi has faced death threats and violent protests since her release. A national poll revealed that ten million Pakistanis would be willing to kill her themselves after she was accused of insulting the prophet Muhammad.
Her lawyer, Saiful Mulook, has already fled Pakistan and been offered temporary exile in the Netherlands.
Speaking in Paris, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confirmed to Agence France-Presse that his government was looking into bringing her into Canada.
“There is a delicate domestic context that we respect which is why I don’t want to say any more about that, but I will remind people Canada is a welcoming country,” he told AFP in an interview on Monday.
The move comes after her supporters claimed at the weekend that Britain had refused to offer her asylum because of fears it would prompt attacks and unrest in the country.
A UK campaign group in touch with the family said the Britain was working to help Bibi, but had stopped short of offering asylum. Wilson Chowdhry, of the British Pakistani Christian Association, said, “Britain was concerned about potential unrest in the country, attacks on embassies and civilians.
“They have not offered automatic asylum, whereas several countries have now come forward. The family will definitely not be coming to Britain.”
He said Britain was “being helpful”, but it was “an enduring shame that a country with such a lauded history of helping refugees and asylum seekers, that when the Asia Bibi case has come before them, they haven’t been as generous as they have for many victims in the past”. He added, “It does seem to me that Britain is now a country that is unsafe for those who may be tarred with an allegation of blasphemy.
“We are very aware that there are extremist elements in this country. Britain would have been one of their first choices. America, Britain and Canada, these would have been their first choices.” He said a plan for her to leave Pakistan was being drawn up.
Bibi’s ordeal began on a blistering hot day in 2009 when the 54-year-old mother of five, a farmworker, went to fetch water. An argument took place after two fellow women farmworkers refused to drink from the same container as a Christian.
Nearly a week later, the two women said Bibi had insulted Muhammad and she was charged with blasphemy — a controversial issue in Pakistan, where mere accusations of blasphemy can cause riots. Bibi was sentenced to death in 2010.
This is not a service being done for Islam. This is enmity taking place against the country
But in a courageous decision on Oct. 31, Pakistan’s Supreme Court acquitted her of the charge saying she had been “more sinned against than sinning.” An Islamist leader immediately said all three judges “deserved to be killed.”
After the verdict, violent mobs unleashed anger, threats and destruction. They laid siege to major cities. They blocked motorways. They torched cars, buses and buildings. They even threatened the lives of the prime minister, the chief justice and the army chief.
Prime Minister Imran Khan went on national television to warn the protesters that the government would take action.
“This is not a service being done for Islam. This is enmity taking place against the country,” Khan said.
However, he later made a deal with the Tehreek-e-Labaik (TLP) political party whereby they agreed to call off the protests in return for submitting a petition to the supreme court protesting the acquittal. The party hopes to return Bibi to jail.
The TLP said the deal also involved the government agreeing to make sure Bibi stayed in the country until the petition was heard.
Bibi is still believed to be in Pakistan but her whereabouts are unknown.
“Asia Bibi is completely secure at a safe place in Pakistan,” said Mohammad Faisal, a foreign ministry spokesman, last week.
The controversy over the case has already led to people being killed.
Salmaan Taseer, the Muslim governor of Punjab, petitioned for a pardon for Bibi and was shot in January 2011 by his own bodyguard.
Two months later, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic and Minister for Minority Affairs in the Pakistani national government, was assassinated by Islamist extremists for taking up Bibi’s case.
There are fears in Pakistan that the religious violence could unseat the prime minister and result in economic setbacks for the country.
Writng in the Daily Pakistan, Ahmed Quraishi said, “The extremists are more emboldened today than at any other time since 9/11. They refuse to accept the possibility that someone can be acquitted after being charged with blasphemy, and feel executing Asia Bibi is the only option. Either this or someone kills her extrajudicially like the sixty other Pakistanis accused of blasphemy and murdered before trial in recent years. At the heart of this debate is paranoia among Pakistani extremists that Islam is under threat and the misperception that foreign pressure protects those who commit blasphemy.
“Interestingly, most Pakistanis and more than a billion Muslims worldwide don’t share this paranoid extremist outlook.”
He added, “Pakistani extremists see the Bibi case as one of the grand decisive intellectual battles for Islam. However, the truth is that it was a brawl between a group of low-educated house cleaners that morphed into a blasphemy case, likely because Bibi is Christian.”