Death penalty and blasphemy conviction of Asia Bibi overturned in Pakistan

November 1, 2018

Pakistan’s Supreme Court has overturned the death penalty conviction of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian who was “accused of defiling the name of the Prophet Muhammed during an argument with three Muslim women” in 2010.

Who is Asia Bibi?

Asia Bibi is a devout Catholic mother of five from the Punjab region in Pakistan. According to journalist Farahnaz Ispanhani, Bibi, “an illiterate berry picker,” is a victim of the unjust blasphemy laws of Pakistan. Bibi was “accused by her Muslim neighbors who objected to her drinking water from the same glass as them because she was a Christian.” In October 2016, Sarah Zylstra reported for Christianity Today that during Bibi’s argument with the women, she asked, “I believe in my religion and in Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for the sins of mankind. What did your Prophet Muhammed ever do to save mankind?” The question was not tolerated, and Bibi was beaten and thrown into prison under the pretense of a charge of blasphemy. During her imprisonment, Bibi wrote her own account of the story.

Blasphemy laws in Pakistan

As multiple news sources have reported, Bibi is the only woman ever to be sentenced to death in Pakistan for violation of blasphemy laws. In most cases, when a person is accused of blasphemy, they are either killed by mob violence or left for dead in prison because no lawyer will represent them in court due to fear.

The current blasphemy laws in Pakistan originated under the dictatorship of Muhammed Zia ul Haq. Farahnaz Ispanhani notes:

. . . in 1980, making a derogatory remark against any Islamic personage was defined as a crime under Pakistan’s Penal Code Section 295, punishable by three years in prison. In 1982, another clause was added that prescribed life imprisonment for ‘willful desecration of the Quran’ and, in 1986, a separate clause was added to punish blasphemy against Prophet Muhammed with ‘death, or imprisonment for life.’

Any leaders in Pakistan who oppose or seek to change such blasphemy laws have been met with violence and protest. The most significant source of violence and protest against the change of blasphemy laws in Pakistan has come from an Islamic political party called, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan. Though initially founded by Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the party gained notoriety after the assassination of Salman Taseer, the Governor of Punjab from 2008 to 2011, by Mumtaz Qadri, a Barelvi Muslim who believed that Taseer deserved to die for his support of Bibi. Qadri was eventually tried, convicted, and executed by the Islamabad High Court. According to Sophia Saifi, Chieu Luu, and Susannah Cullinane, Qadri’s execution in 2016 for the murder of Taseer “has been attracting political and religious support through Pakistan.” Such support can be seen with the protest outside of Pakistan’s Supreme Court, where supporters of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan gathered in recent days to call for Bibi’s execution.

The role of the U.S. Government in cases of international religious liberty

With Asia Bibi’s death sentence being overturned, Pakistani political leaders come to a crossroads regarding the future of blasphemy laws in their country. Opposition to blasphemy laws is often met with harsh and violent resistance from groups like Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan. Just two years after Bibi’s conviction in 2010, Pakistanis saw two prominent politicians assassinated for their support of Bibi and their opposition to the current blasphemy laws. These leaders were willing to die to oppose the injustice and oppression of their country’s laws. The question remains as to whether other leaders will be willing to risk political loss or even physical death to oppose certain aspects of an Islamic theocracy in Pakistan and advocate for aspects of toleration and religious liberty for the religious minorities in their midst.

In particular, many are curious to see how Imran Khan, the newly elected prime minister of Pakistan, will navigate the news of Bibi’s acquittal. While some fear that Khan’s populist campaign inclines him to the agenda of groups like Tehreek-e-Labbaik, others are hopeful that Bibi’s acquittal will give Khan an opportunity to take a strong stance “with the innocent woman instead of the rabid and bloodthirsty extremists.” According to the most recent news reports, it appears that Khan will back the decision of the Supreme Court and align himself against groups like Tehreek-e-Labbaij Pakistan.

With the news of Bibi’s case, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) announced that it “welcomes the decision by Pakistan’s Supreme Court to overturn the death sentence handed down in 2010.” USCIRF, as the ERLC has reported in the past, is an “independent, bipartisan government commission created as part of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA). Since 2002, USCIRF has designated Pakistan as a “country of particular concern” on account of “ongoing, systemic, egregious violations of religious freedom.”

In response to the findings of USCIRF, the commission called for the “use of tools such as the denial of visas and the freezing of assets against the specific individuals who have participated in or have been responsible for severe violations of religious freedom.” Such international pressure, while not publicly admitted by foreign governments, is often useful in curbing threats to international religious liberty. Admittedly, while there is more work to be done in Pakistan, this ruling represents a significant victory for religious freedom. The ERLC is grateful to God for the outcome of this court case.

A way forward, prayerful advocacy for the persecuted church

As Christians reflect on the details of this case, we must remember that not everyone's case ends with acquittal, the way Asia Bibi's did. Many unnamed victims suffer substantial oppression from intolerant governments around the world. Moreover, while we do not hear all of their stories, our Father in heaven sees all, knows all, and call us as his children to care for the “least of these” (Matt. 25:40). How, then, can we care for those who are persecuted?

First, we can pray regularly for their faith and endurance in the midst of hardship. In the case of Asia Bibi, we can pray for the government to protect her and her family as she is released and most likely seeks asylum in another country due to the threats in Pakistan.

Second, we can visit them, support them, and encourage them in partnership with international ministries like the IMB or Open Doors USA.

Third, we can equip our congregations with a global vision of the church of Jesus Christ through education and special emphasis efforts like Global Hunger Relief or International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church.

Finally, we can learn more about the efforts of USCIRF [here and here] and call upon our elected officials in the United States to continue their support of such bipartisan efforts for international religious liberty.

Casey B. Hough

Casey B. Hough (Ph.D., New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary) serves as lead pastor at Copperfield Church in Houston, Texas, and assistant professor of biblical interpretation at a Luther Rice College and Seminary. Casey and his wife, Hannah, have three sons and two daughters. For more ministry resources from Casey, visit his … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24