By Philip Pullella
ROME (Reuters) – Italy said on Tuesday it will help a Pakistani Christian woman leave her country because her life is in danger following charges of blasphemy against Islam that put her on death row for eight years.
Pakistan’s Supreme Court acquitted Asia Bibi last month but the decision sparked mass protests and her husband, Ashiq Masih, says they could be killed by Islamists. Authorities have indicated they will bar Bibi from travelling abroad.
The case has galvanised Christian and human rights groups outraged by the country’s treatment of religious minorities including its tiny Christian population.
“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 (for Bibi),” Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini said.
“It is not permissible that in 2018 someone can risk losing their life for a … hypothesis of blasphemy,” said Salvini, who is also interior minister and head of the League party, which has been critical of Islam in the past.
Italy is working discreetly on the case with other Western countries, he told an Italian radio station.
Earlier, the international Catholic agency Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) quoted Masih as saying in a telephone call: “I appeal to the Italian government to help me and my family leave Pakistan.”
“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,” he told the agency.
In the interview with the radio station, Salvini was asked to respond to the husband’s appeal.
Bibi’s case has prompted groups such as ACN, which has close ties to the Vatican, to demand protection for Christians in countries where they are a minority. [L3N1XC5AM]
Bibi was convicted of blasphemy in 2010 after neighbours said she made derogatory remarks about Islam when they objected to her drinking water from their glass because she was not Muslim. She is a Protestant and denies committing blasphemy.
The ultra-right Tehreek-e-Labaik (TLP) party blocked major
roads in Pakistan’s biggest cities for three days, calling for
the murder of the Supreme Court judges who acquitted Bibi
and calling Prime Minister Imran Khan and the army chief enemies of Islam.
The TLP called off the protests after striking a deal with the government that could bar Bibi from leaving the country and open a review of the verdict.
Bibi’s lawyer Saiful Mulook, fled to the Netherlands because of fears for the safety of his family.
Two prominent Pakistani politicians who spoke out in her defence were assassinated in 2011.
Human rights groups such as Amnesty International say the blasphemy law is increasingly exploited by religious extremists as well as ordinary Pakistanis to settle personal scores.
Salvini said Italy had nothing against the Pakistani government. “The enemy is violence, extremism and fanaticism,” he said.
Masih and one of the couple’s two daughter met Pope Francis at the Vatican in February and participated in a demonstration organised by ACN in which Rome’s Coliseum was lit in red to bring attention to the woman’s plight.
The group plans to dye parts of the Grand Canal in Venice red at another demonstration this month.
Masih has previously appealed to the United States, Britain and Canada for assistance in leaving the country.
(Additional reporting by Saad Sayeed in Islamabad and Giselda Vagnoni in Rome; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)