ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The release from prison of a Christian woman acquitted of blasphemy against Islam, and unconfirmed reports that she was then secretly airlifted abroad, are roiling Pakistani Muslims and intensifying fears in the country’s minority Christian community.
The government on Thursday confirmed the release of Asia Bibi, whose acquittal by the Pakistani Supreme Court last week sparked violent protests and death threats against authorities. But officials denied Pakistani media reports that she was then secretly flown out of the country.
Pakistani news media reported widely Thursday that Bibi, whose lawyer fled the country this week, was covertly freed from prison in the city of Multan under a high court order, driven to a military air base near the capital and flown to the Netherlands on Wednesday, accompanied by her family and the Dutch ambassador to Pakistan.
Pakistani officials insisted throughout the day Thursday that she had not been freed. The government, in a frantic and successful effort to stop the spreading violence last week, agreed in negotiations with protest leaders that it would not allow her to leave the country.
A Foreign Ministry spokesman said later Thursday that Bibi has been released from prison but remains “in a safe place in Pakistan.” He cautioned the news media to verify all speculative reports of her leaving “to prevent needless sensationalism and controversy.”
The Muslim religious group leading the protests, which brought the country to a near-standstill for three days after the Oct. 31 verdict, has demanded her death and threatened to take to the streets again if the state abetted her escape. In a statement released Thursday afternoon, the group said Bibi’s release and reported flight violated the agreement, brought “pain and sorrow” to the nation and has “written a black chapter in history.”
But in a video message, a senior leader of the group, Pir Afzal Qadri, said: “We have been assured by the government that she is in the custody of law enforcement agencies . . . and has not been flown out of the country.” He said officials told the group that Bibi would not be allowed to leave until the Supreme Court rules on the appeal of her acquittal.
There were no immediate signs of further unrest, but tension and uncertainty were evident in terse official statements, along with public confusion about Bibi’s status and whereabouts. Since the protests broke out, anxiety has run especially high in Christian communities, where people were elated by her acquittal last week but horrified by the violence that greeted the ruling.
“We were all praying for this lady. When we heard she was free, we thought God had answered our prayers,” said Aslam Massih Hassan, an elder of the Jesus Calls Christian Ministry, a brightly painted cinder-block church in a maze of alleys that is home to several thousand poor Christian families in the capital.
But within hours of the Oct. 31 court order that overturned Bibi’s conviction, word spread in the community that thousands of Muslim protesters, angry at the verdict, were blocking major roads across the country. By the next day, the swelling crowds had grown violent.
Rashida Mores, a housemaid who lives near the church, said her daughter was supposed to report for night duty as a hospital nurse in Rawalpindi, 10 miles away.
“I begged her not to go, but she insisted,” Mores said. “She took a taxi on some back roads. I prayed all night until she came home.”
The spate of enraged protests, provoked by a crusading anti-blasphemy group, was abruptly called off after officials hastily negotiated an agreement with its top leaders. But the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan, who issued a strong warning to the protesters but then backed off, has been criticized for capitulating to an extremist religious movement with growing political ambitions.
Analysts predict that the group’s leaders, who come from Pakistan’s largest Sunni Muslim school and are gaining fervent new support, will feel emboldened to act more aggressively. And activists in the Christian population, estimated at about 3 million in the Muslim-majority country of 208 million, worry that the outbursts could easily flare again and that Christians and other minority groups could be targeted for attack.
“It seems like we have jungle law now. It is deeply disturbing that this one radical group has gotten so much power that they can take the whole country hostage, and no one can stop them,” said Nelson Azeem, a former legislator from Punjab and a Christian leader. “This has caused great fear in the hearts of Christians and other minorities, who feel they could be targeted anywhere on charges of blasphemy and no one could protect them, no matter how baseless the charges are.”
Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws are often used maliciously, with false accusations made against Christians and Ahmadis, a tiny minority that reveres a modern-day prophet from India. In recent years, numerous minority neighborhoods and places of worship have been attacked by frenzied mobs, enraged by rumors that someone had torn or defaced a Koran. Ahmadis are reviled by many Pakistani Muslims, who believe fervently that Muhammad was the “final” prophet.
Bibi, a peasant field worker and mother of four, was accused of blasphemy in 2009 after an argument with Muslim co-workers over sharing water. She was swiftly convicted and sent to prison. Even after the Supreme Court ruled, in meticulous detail, that the case against her was based on flimsy and contradictory evidence, the emotional protesters demanded that the illiterate mother of four be killed.
“We are all very much scared,” said Mahnaz Massih, 38, a beautician in a Christian neighborhood. “The pastor told us to hurry home after services and not linger outside. If we hear people talking about religion, we say nothing. We respect Islam, and Muslims should respect us, but some Muslims are scared, too,” she added. “They don’t like what is happening, but they don’t dare go against it.”
One reason for the wider unease is that the leader of the protesters, a cleric named Khadim Hussain Rizvi, also urged them to violently attack government officials, including the Supreme Court justices, and called on soldiers to rise up against the national army chief in the name of defending Islam.
The threat had a chilling precedent that stemmed from the Bibi case. After Salman Taseer, then the provincial governor of Punjab, publicly criticized the harsh treatment of Bibi, he was shot dead by his bodyguard, 26-year-old Mumtaz Qadri, whose personal “martyrdom” for Islam became the rallying cry of Rizvi’s movement.
“With the killing of Salman Taseer, the issue of blasphemy became a weapon in their hands,” said Zahid Hussain, a writer and columnist on public affairs. “When you work on the people’s religious sensitivities and justify killing in the name of faith, you create an atmosphere of fear, and it works.”
There is another, more complex reason for the government’s reluctance to put the brakes on the anti-blasphemy crusade. Its storm troops may be mostly working-class Muslims, but it enjoys considerable, if mostly tacit, sympathy in high places.
A senior Punjab minister visited the shrine to Qadri, who was hanged for murder in 2016, and other officials attended his funeral. Security troops distributed money to Rizvi’s forces during protests last year over alleged official failures to protect the “finality of the prophethood” in federal law. And Khan’s party, then competing with the ruling Pakistan Muslim League in elections, made tactical alliances with Rizvi’s.
Army leaders have been especially concerned by the protest leaders’ calls for a military uprising against the army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa. The group has insinuated that Bajwa is connected to the ostracized Ahmadi minority. In Khan’s get-tough speech after the court ruling, he particularly denounced threats against the army, which took pains to publicly distance itself from the crisis.
But the most vulnerable Pakistanis are those in poor minority communities like the one where Hassan’s church is located — a shabby but lively neighborhood in the capital that is just a 10-minute walk from the upscale cafe where Taseer was murdered in 2011. They have no weapons to defend themselves and no high walls separating them from any angry intruders.
“For now, Christians are not a direct target. The protesters are probably more angry at the government than anyone else,” said Munawar Inayat, the pastor of the Holy of Holies Ministry, another one-room sanctuary in Hassan’s community. “But next time, God forbid, we have no idea what might happen.”