(CNSNews.com) – As Christians celebrate their savior’s birth on Sunday, they are being urged to remember persecuted fellow believers unable to enjoy the day with their families, including death row prisoners Asia Bibi of Pakistan and Youcef Nadarkhani of Iran, both of whom will be spending their third Christmas behind bars.
Asia Bibi, a Pakistani farm laborer in her mid-40s, has been in prison since June 2009. She was sentenced to death last year for “blaspheming” Islam’s prophet. Nadarkhani, an Iranian pastor in his early 30s, was arrested in October 2009 and has been sentenced to hang for “apostasy.”
The fate of both is uncertain in the year ahead.
Asia is awaiting an appeal before the Lahore High Court but there are no signs it will be held anytime soon, due to a severe case backlog and the political sensitivity surrounding the blasphemy issue in Pakistan.
Three months after Nadarkhani’s death sentence was upheld by Iran’s Supreme Court last July, the case was referred to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who was expected to make a ruling on whether the pastor, who embraced Christianity at the age of 19, is an apostate under Islamic law (shari’a).
In recent days supporters have learned that the final verdict has been delayed by anywhere from four months to a year, during which time an official effort to persuade Nadarkhani to recant his faith in Jesus Christ may resume.
Although Asia and Nadarkhani are only two among unnumbered thousands of imprisoned Christians in Islamic countries, for religious freedom advocates they are identifiable victims whose cases have drawn unprecedented attention to shari’a-based apostasy and blasphemy laws.
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws carry the death penalty for anyone convicted of denigrating Mohammed or the Qur’an.
Asia Bibi was arrested after Muslim co-workers accused her of insulting Mohammed. Asia denied the claim, saying she had been falsely accused after the Muslim women objected to sharing a water bowl with a Christian. In November 2010 she was sentenced to death by hanging.
Two politicians who supported her, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer and federal Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, were both assassinated in 2011 for their stance.
President Asif Ali Zardari’s party pledged in its 2008 election platform to review “statutes that discriminate against religious minorities,” but in government has been unwilling to confront the clerical establishment or extremist groups by abolishing or even amending the blasphemy laws.
More than half a million people have signed a petition calling for Asia’s pardon and release, but she remains incarcerated despite that and many other appeals, including one from the Pope.
According to Barnabas Fund, a charity helping Christians in Muslim countries, Asia is being held in isolation for her own safety, and her children are only allowed two visits a year. (Concerned that the government might free her or tamper with the blasphemy laws, at least one radical cleric has offered a reward to anyone who murders her.)
“The family had an emotional reunion on 13 December, carefully organized by a Christian couple who run the school that Asia’s daughters attend,” the organization said. “When the incarcerated mother saw her children, she naturally wanted to hug and kiss them but was not initially allowed any contact. The school director pleaded with the jail authorities and obtained permission for the family to meet in a separate room.”
Barnabas Fund said Asia’s husband, Ashiq, has been unable to work because of safety fears, as family members of those accused of blasphemy in Pakistan are frequently attacked.
The charity is providing support for the family. Asia’s children are Naseem, Imran, Sidra, Esha and Esham, the youngest, who is nine.
A report by the National Commission for Justice and Peace, a Catholic body, found that more than 950 people were charged under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws between 1986 and 2009.
Just two weeks ago, a Christian laborer in Punjab province was charged with blasphemy after being accused of burning pages of the Qur’an. According to the Pakistan Christian Congress, the unschooled Khurram Masih had been ordered by Muslim co-workers to burn trash at their work site. After the site owner arrived and saw that among the material being burned were pages of Arabic writing, the local mosque used call-to-prayer loudspeakers to incite a mob attack.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent advisory body, has been calling every year since 2002 for the U.S. government to designate Pakistan as an egregious violator of religious freedom. The Bush and Obama administrations both disregarded the recommendation.
Youcef Nadarkhani is married to Fatemah and has two children, Daniel, 9, and Yoel, 7.
As he faces his third Christmas in prison, some advocacy groups suspect the Iranian authorities have again ordered a delay in the hopes international attention will move away from a case that has discomfited Tehran.
Jason DeMars of Present Truth Ministries says he has learned from Nadarkhani’s Iranian attorney that Iran’s judiciary head has now ordered the presiding judge to take no action for one year.
“After one year we do not know what they will do,” he said. “It is clear that they want Youcef’s case to slip away from international attention.”
The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), advocating on the pastor’s behalf, believes the delay may be designed to buy Khamenei more time before issuing a ruling that could set a legal precedent.
“[I]f the Supreme Leader, who is charged with providing the official interpretation of shari’a law, decides that Pastor Youcef is not an apostate, that decision could be used as persuasive evidence in future apostasy cases,” according to ACLJ executive director Jordan Sekulow. “This outcome may be exactly what the regime fears and is trying to avoid.”
In the meantime, the authorities may well resume their earlier attempts to force Nadarkhani to disavow his Christian faith.
“Any attempt by the regime to force Pastor Youcef to convert to Islam violates both the Iranian Constitution and international principles of religious freedom,” Sekulow said.
Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) drew attention to the plight of Nadarkhani and two other Iranian pastors in prison – Farshid Fathi-Malayeri, an evangelical church leader who has been detained since December 26 last year and has yet to appear in court; and Behnam Irani, a pastor serving a five-year sentence for “action against national security,” and who was described in his verdict as an apostate.
“These men are representative of many other Iranian Christians held on spurious charges or without any charges in prisons throughout the country,” said CSW advocacy director Andrew Johnston.
“We urge the international community to continue to press Iran for the release of Pastor Nadarkhani and others who are unjustly imprisoned or facing execution due to flawed judicial processes.”
Almost 190,000 people have signed a petition organized by ACLJ, urging Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to call on Iran to overturn Nadarkhani’s death sentence and release him.