Kathryn, Rich, and Nina have already done a wonderful job of reminding and informing us of what many Christians around the world have experienced this year, and at Christmas. We may also want to remember particularly at this time two additional people, Asia Bibi and Yousef Nadarkhani, whose imprisonment and death sentences crystallize the situation of many in the church.
Though the Iranian government denies it, Pastor Nadarkhani continues to face the death penalty for apostasy, that is, for having become a Christian. In a very unusual move, probably triggered by international attention to the case, the courts — after pronouncing a sentence of death — have twice referred the case to Ayatollah Khamenei, the country’s “Supreme Leader.” As yet, Khamenei has issued no decision. Christian Solidarity Worldwide states that it has received unconfirmed reports that any execution may be delayed for up to a year to allow time to convince Pastor Nadarkhani to renounce his faith.
In Pakistan, Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five, still faces the death penalty for allegedly blaspheming Mohammed. Punjab governor Salman Taseer and Federal Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti were both killed this past year for defending her and opposing Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. The Fides news agency reports that she needs medical care to ward off mental illness. An international delegation from the Masihi Foundation, overseeing Bibby’s legal and material assistance, visited her on December 19 in the prison in Sheikpura, where she has been held for more than a year, and is currently in isolation. They report that she had not been allowed to bathe for more than two months, could not stand on her own, appeared confused, and was afraid to accept the water they offered her to drink. Nevertheless, she told them she has forgiven those who accused her of blasphemy and only wants to return to her family.
Haroon Barkat Masih, the international director of the Masihi Foundation, said: “Recently, Pope Benedict XVI visited the prisoners in an Italian prison: We believe that, through his gesture, we have symbolically included all the prisoners in the world and even Asia Bibi, who will spend a sad Christmas, in solitude in a cell. We call on all Christians around the world to remember Asia Bibi to the Lord, on Christmas Eve, and to raise a prayer for her.” And for Pastor Nadarkhani, and many others.
— Paul Marshall is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom and co-author, with Nina Shea, of the just released Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes are Choking Freedoms Worldwide (Oxford University Press, 2011).