Asia Bibi

Asia Bibi flies to freedom

‘Today is a day of rejoicing’ – Neville Kyrke-Smith

By John Pontifex


ASIA Bibi’s flight to Canada has been hailed as “the news we had all been hoping and praying for” – according to the head of a Catholic organisation committed to helping victims of injustice in Pakistan.

Father Emmanuel ‘Mani’ Yousaf, National Director of Pakistan’s Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, said in an interview with Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need: “For almost 10 years now, this is the day all of us have been waiting for when the family can, at last, be reunited.” And Neville Kyrke-Smith, National Director, Aid to the Church in Need (UK), said: “Thank you to so many people who have prayed and campaigned for Asia Bibi’s release. “Today is a day of rejoicing.”

Paying tribute to Aid to the Church in Need and all those who have appealed for justice for Asia Bibi, Father Yousaf said: “There are so many who deserve our congratulations for all that they have done for Asia in her struggle to regain her freedom.” The comments come amid breaking news that the Christian woman, formerly on death row for blasphemy, has finally left her native Pakistan and travelled to Canada, where her two daughters, Eisham and Esha, are now living. Father Yousaf said: “We thank God that the family is now being reunited at long last.

“We pray to God that they will have a better future and can put behind them nearly 10 years of suffering. “We thank God that justice has prevailed.”

Asia Bibi was charged with blasphemy in 2009, a crime punishable by death. Last October the Supreme Court of Pakistan acquitted her, confirming its decision in an appeal hearing in January, but she was not allowed to follow her wish and leave the country – until today. Mr Kyrke-Smith said: “At Aid to the Church in Need, we were privileged to welcome some of Asia Bibi’s family to the UK last year. “We are sure that the presentations they made gave added impetus to finding a solution for Asia who had suffered unjust imprisonment for nearly 10 years.”

He added: However, today is also a day tinged with great sadness – as we remember those others who are still incarcerated or unjustly accused under the Blasphemy Laws today as well as those who sacrificed so much for Asia Bibi, particularly the politicians Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, who gave up their lives in the pursuit of freedom for Asia. “Our prayers and our work will continue to help all those who are unjustly accused by radical fundamentalists and who cannot practise their Christian faith freely.”

Pope Iraq Donation Lamborghini

ACN to “convert” the Lamborghini donated by the Pope into a nursery school and a centre for Christians in the Nineveh region

Thanks to a donation of 200,000 Euros from the Holy Father, following the auctioning of the Lamborghini that was given to him last year, ACN will be able to fund two new projects on behalf of the Iraqi Christian families and other minorities who have returned to their homes on the Nineveh Plains.

On 15 November 2017, the Holy Father decided to give ACN part of the proceeds from the auctioning of the Lamborghini Hurricane that had been donated to him by the famous Italian carmaker. Now ACN will give concrete form to the Pope’s gesture by funding the reconstruction of two buildings of the Syriac Catholic Church, destroyed by the war. They are the nursery school (kindergarten) of Our Lady and the multipurpose centre of the parish of the same name.

Both buildings are in the village of Bashiqa, just 30 km from Mosul. The village was badly damaged during the war, but the Christian community has returned and in large numbers. In fact, by now 405 of the 580 homes that were destroyed here have already been rebuilt and around 50% of the Christians, or 1,585 people, have already returned.

Totally destroyed multipurpose hall of St Mary, in the Syriac Catholic town of Bashiqa.
Totally destroyed multipurpose hall of St Mary, in the Syriac Catholic town of Bashiqa.

Totally destroyed multipurpose hall of St Mary, in the Syriac Catholic town of Bashiqa.

The two projects funded with the money from the Lamborghini will also benefit the other minorities in the town, since the multipurpose centre, which has a capacity for over 1,000 people, will be used for weddings and the religious feasts of all the various different communities. It will be the largest such centre in the area and will be available for use to over 30,000 people of all different faiths and ethnic groups.

Just a little over two years since the liberation of the villages of the Nineveh Plains, the number of Christians who have been able to return to their homes has exceeded even the most optimistic predictions. By 11 January this year at least 9108 families had returned to their villages, or almost 46% of the 19,832 families dwelling there in 2014 prior to the arrival of so-called Islamic State. This is thanks above all to the immense work of reconstruction – to which ACN has greatly contributed – that has made it possible so far to rebuild or repair some 41% of the 14,035 homes destroyed or damaged by IS.

Partially destroyed Virgin Mary Kindergarten, in the Syriac Catholic town of Bashiqa.

Partially destroyed Virgin Mary Kindergarten, in the Syriac Catholic town of Bashiqa.

This intervention, in which the pontifical foundation ACN has played a major role in collaboration with the local Churches, has also found a generous benefactor in the person of the Holy Father. Already back in 2016, Pope Francis gave 100,000 Euros in support of the “Saint Joseph Charity Clinic” in Erbil, which provides free medical assistance.

This most recent gift by the Holy Father will be a further help to local Christians, enabling them to live their own faith and offer a future in Iraq to their children. At the same time, it is a powerful message and an invitation to peaceful coexistence between the different religions in a region where fundamentalism has sadly done grave damage to interreligious relations.

Since 2014 and up to the present day ACN has given over 14 million Euros for the support of Iraqi Christians.

PAKISTAN : Family of Asia Bibi interview

ACN News, 15.10.2018 / Pakistan / Family of Asia Bibi by Pierre Macqueron (ACN France)

Asia Bibi – almost 10 years of suffering for her and her family

Nine years. That is how long Asia Bibi has spent in prison and on death row for an alleged blasphemy – which she has always denied. It is also how old her daughter Eisham was, back in June 2009, when she witnessed an enraged crowd beating her mother. Now 18, she met with ACN on Saturday 13 October in London, accompanied by her father, Ashiq Masih.

«We last saw Asia on Monday 1st October, before coming to the United Kingdom. She is well, physically and spiritually », her husband, Ashiq Masih, told ACN on Saturday 13 October in London. « After being accused of blasphemy, she has suffered, her whole family has suffered, for almost 10 years now. But by the grace of God, we hope she will very soon be set free », he added.


Invited to visit the UK by ACN, Ashiq and Eisham Masih agreed to come and share the story of their wife and mother. « Asia Bibi has been in prison for almost 10 years now», Ashiq recalled. « It’s a terrible thing for a husband and for a child. We have come here today to bear witness, to speak up and be a voice for Asia Bibi, who has been falsely accused of blasphemy. She has asked me to urge you to remember her in your prayers, to pray that she may very soon be set free. » Asia was accused of having « insulted » the Prophet Muhammad during an argument with two Muslim women from her village, who had refused to drink water from a glass that she had just used. Asia Bibi is the first woman to have been sentenced to death under Pakistan’s draconian anti-blasphemy laws.


Unwavering fidelity


Now that Pakistan’s Supreme Court, which is Asia Bibi’s last hope, has stated on Monday 8 October, that it intends to « reserve its decision for the moment », her family members remain, are determined to remain, resolutely optimistic. « We believe that the Supreme Court judges intend to find in her favour », they insist. It is a conviction that is bolstered by a solid legal case and also on the astounding and unwavering hope of this family, who confess that they draw their strength « from the Lord Jesus Christ, who hears the prayers of those who suffer ».

Yet there are all too many reasons for despair for this family, who have been forced to live in hiding in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, where blasphemy is an extremely sensitive subject. Mere allegations of blasphemy regularly end up with the lynching of those accused, and Christians are frequently targeted, as a persecuted minority.


Ever since its statement on Monday 8 October, Islamist fundamentalists have been demanding that the Supreme Court carry out the sentence pronounced against Asia Bibi by the two lower courts, namely death by hanging. An absolute wave of violence has been unleashed on social networks: « If you free Asia Bibi, prepare yourselves for more Mumtaz Qatris », is their sinister threat. Mumtaz Qadri, who was hanged in 2016, was the man who assassinated Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, on 4 January 2011, for having publicly spoken up in defence of Asia Bibi and for criticising the anti-blasphemy laws in Pakistan. These laws were introduced by the British at the time when the British Indian Empire included what is today the country of Pakistan. Since 1986, under the dictatorship of General Zia ul-Haq (1977-1988), this controversial legislation has made blasphemy punishable by the death penalty.


«We cannot remain in Pakistan»


Besides, Ashiq is quite lucid in recognising that « everyone is afraid; everyone is facing threats – the supporters of Asia Bibi, her lawyers, her judges. » Nevertheless, one can see that he is proud of living in Pakistan, among the Muslims, who represent almost 96% of the population. He goes on to add, « not all of them are in favour of the execution of Asia Bibi. There are many people who understand that we are suffering. But the extremists, and the fundamentalist organisations are also very numerous. » Numerous, and extremely vindictive, as Father Emmanuel Yousaf, the president of the Justice and Peace commission of the Pakistani Catholic Bishops’ Conference, emphasises.


And so, it is with a heavy heart that Ashiq acknowledges that his family can no longer remain in Pakistan. And while he is not revealing the place of their exile, he nonetheless continues to trust in providence: « God will take care of Asia Bibi and her family. He will find us a peaceful place. God will choose for us. » A peaceful place, from which her daughter Eisham is determined to continue her studies in law in order to become a barrister, and so to be able to help the poorest and those accused of blasphemy.

Syria: ACN Rebuilding in Aleppo

ACN News, 04.10.2018 / Syria/Aleppo by Maria Lozano

Syria – ACN embarks on reconstruction programme in Aleppo

The international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) is sponsoring 32 new projects in Syria, at a total cost of 1.8 million Euros, for the restoration of the material and spiritual life of the Christian population there.

  • Children, women and the sick will be among the first to benefit from the aid programmes
  • Among the seven reconstruction projects for the physical infrastructure of Aleppo, one of the cities most damaged during the war, there are three cathedrals

The pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) is embarking on a programme of reconstruction and restoration in Aleppo, one of the cities that suffered most from the consequences of the war. Among the seven projects for the physical reconstruction of the city there are three involving Catholic cathedrals, namely the Armenian, Maronite and Syrian Catholic cathedrals. These three cathedrals not only represent the riches of the Eastern Rites in Aleppo, but are at the same time a symbol of the Christian roots of the city.

“The churches are like lighthouses in the ocean; they are a source of security and hope, and are but one of the first steps towards encouraging the return of the uprooted Christians here – as ACN well knows, having been so involved in the reconstruction of the towns and villages destroyed by IS in Iraq”, emphasises Father Andrzej Halemba, who heads the project section responsible for Syria at the international headquarters of the foundation. Last year ACN also sponsored the reconstruction of the Melkite Catholic Cathedral in Homs.

In addition to supporting two parish community centres and a biblical study centre, ACN has promised help to complete the renovation work on a centre for autistic children which has been run by Franciscan missionary sisters for the past 21 years. The building is very damp due to the breakdown of the heating system during the war, and poses a real danger to the health of the 15 children cared for daily there.

All this is being done on top of the ongoing aid programmes for the hundreds of displaced families that ACN has been supporting from the very beginning of the conflict in 2011 in Aleppo and in other cities such as Homs and Latakia. “Although we would like these families to be able to return to their homes and be able to begin a new life, there is still a good deal to be done in order to make this possible. And meanwhile we cannot cut off our aid, since the local churches cannot take on this burden. According to UNHCR some 13.1 million people in Syria are in need of humanitarian assistance today. “Those who are suffering most are the poorest”, Father Halemba explains. That is why ACN will be spending two thirds of the 1.8 million Euros allocated on renewed emergency aid packages. These will include among other things paying the rent for 340 families in Homs, providing medical assistance for around 700 people in Aleppo and a monthly allowance for food and healthcare over the next six months for 1,725 of the poorest families in Latakia.

Along with these 32 projects recently approved, the number of projects that the international foundation ACN is carrying out in Syria in 2018 now totals 121 valued at almost 7 million euros.

“The suffering is not over yet!”, Father Halemba insists. “We face massive challenges simply in easing the terrible wounds inflicted over the past eight years, and at the same time we cannot forget that the future of these people lies in our hands and that we have a responsibility towards them.”


Mexico – one year after the earthquake


The month of September 2017 will not be easy to forget for the Mexican people. Two earthquakes which struck just 12 days apart, on the 7th and 19th of September, left thousands of families torn apart, 471 people dead and over 12 million otherwise affected. Most victims were in the city of Mexico itself, but there were also many in other states, such as Cuernavaca, Oaxaca and Puebla. We still retain vivid memories of buildings collapsing like a house of cards, of roads and bridges destroyed – and at the same time we recall the solidarity shown by this country in drawing on all its resources and tirelessly searching for survivors amid the ruins.

But now, in this country that has been struck once again by a natural disaster, “The aid measures for the reconstruction of Mexico have been confused and inadequate and the people affected are still registering their dissatisfaction at the fact that the administrative procedures for securing aid to rebuild their homes have been slow and far from clear”, explains Julieta Appendini, the director of the Mexican national office of the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) in Mexico City.

For its part, the Mexican Bishops’ Conference has identified 1,850 Catholic churches that have suffered varying degrees of damage in 26 dioceses. 1,603 of these are officially the property of the state, which means that it is the government which is responsible for rebuilding and repairing them – and that it is therefore impossible for the Church authorities to intervene. These include 17 cathedrals, 4 basilicas, 44 shrines, 76 convents and monasteries, 226 smaller churches and chapels, 31 parish offices or presbyteries, 11 seminaries 1,411 parish buildings and 30 large buildings still in the process of being assessed. It is estimated that it will take between three and six years to repair them all.

Those churches and chapels that do not belong to the state are now in the process of being repaired or rebuilt under the responsibility of the Mexican Bishops’ Conference and with the help of international agencies such as ACN which – after providing initial emergency aid to 23 local communities in the municipal areas of San Mateo del Mar and Unión Hidalgo in Oaxaca (where communities of up to 10,000 people were forced to seek refuge in adjoining territories after their own homes had been totally destroyed) – is now continuing its aid with church rebuilding projects. Work is already in progress on repairing the convent of the Poor Clare Missionaries of the most Blessed Sacrament (Misioneras Clarisas del Santísimo Sacramento) in Cuernavaca, which had to be to largely demolished following the earthquake. And likewise on the convents of two other congregations of religious sisters – the church of the Bienaventuranzas in Puebla and the mother house and ancient chapel of the Disciples of Jesus the Good Shepherd (Discípulas de Jesús Buen Pastor).


“I was in Jojutla, one of the places most severely devastated in the country”, recalls Julieta Appendini. “I heard the story of Mario, a little boy who was left dumb for several days after the earthquake after living through the tragedy that struck his school. His mother took him to the church, which was still standing, to give thanks to God that they were still alive. And on seeing the statue of Jesus, the first words that Mario spoke were: ‘That is the man who saved our lives. He held up the building and told us to get out and waited until we were all outside, and after that the building collapsed.’ I believe that in such moments of great tragedy it is God who always accompanies us and gives us the strength to go on. That is why it is so important for them to rebuild their churches”, the national director of ACN Mexico reiterated.

In total, ACN has so far helped with five different projects in five dioceses, giving a total of 150,000 Euros. And it is currently evaluating another reconstruction project in the diocese of Cuernavaca, which was close to the epicentre of the second earthquake on 19 September 2017.

SYRIA: “We have to rebuild the country”

SYRIA: “We have to rebuild the country. Simply wanting to return is not enough.”

Interview, 28.08.2018 / Syria by By Maria Lozano & Pierre Macqueron

Under the leadership of Maronite Archbishop Samir Nassar of Damascus and with the support of the international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), a delegation from the Family Commission of the Syrian Bishops’ Conference (1) was able to participate in the World Meeting of Families in Dublin from August 21 to 26. Taking advantage of this occasion, Maria Lozano and Pierre Macqueron interviewed members of the delegation about the situation in the country. Denouncing the war in their country as "the cruellest tragedy in history since World War II," the participants describe the difficulties faced by Syrian families, dispersed, traumatized and ruined after eight years of war.


What is the situation in Syria at the present time?

Archbishop Samir Nassar: What is happening in Syria is an international war, it is not merely a local conflict – in fact 85 countries are involved in this war! It is the most brutal crisis in history since the Second World War. Since April we have begun to witness something of a return to peace. Bombs are no longer falling in Damascus. The problem? Our young people have been fleeing the country ever since 2015, and now we are waiting and hoping for them to return. We are doing everything we can to help those who have stayed on, including helping the families, most of which have been split up. Our mission is to help the people to stay on and to help those who have left to return again, together with their families. A great deal remains to be done to rebuild the country after eight years of war.


Sister Jihane Elaoudatallah: We have come through some extremely difficult times. A few months ago, in my school in Damascus, a bomb fell, killing one of our female teachers. Another bomb fell in the grounds of the school, but fortunately it did not injure anyone. Later on a bomb killed one of the children and badly injured another, who had to have his leg amputated. The children were deeply traumatised and no longer wanted to go to school. For them, going to school meant going to their deaths. We had to go through a long process of reconciliation in order to overcome this psychological barrier. To do so we organised spiritual exercises in a remote and quiet place for those families who had been through really traumatic situations. A Jesuit priest spoke to them about the Christian life, about how to live through their fears together with the children. And we also studied the encyclical Laudato Si’. As a result, the families involved asked us to organise these meetings on a regular basis, and so we now have a meeting every month to pray, reflect and also eat and relax together.


Jean-Pierre Bingly: All the families, whether they are Muslims, Druze or Christians, have been similarly affected by the war and have to face the same problems. Their children have died in the war, or have emigrated… So now we have to rebuild our families and do whatever we can to make things better.


Father Raymond Girgis: I think we can say that the situation is now one of normality and peace in Damascus itself. The Church has recommenced its everyday pastoral work. In our own monastery we have 230 children receiving catechesis, and we also have the retirement home for the elderly… The Church is continuing to provide material and spiritual support. Throughout the whole of this time of war, in addition to helping the sick and the poor, we have continued to help through our work in the family apostolate and through providing spiritual support.


Is it possible for the Syrian refugees to return now?


Archbishop Samir Nassar: For years Syria has been a place of refuge – for the Armenians in the 1920s, for the Assyrians, the Kurds, the Lebanese, the Iraqis… However, the Syrian refugees themselves were not made altogether welcome in many parts of the world. They are so many, too many. Nobody wants to welcome them. But now, returning to Syria is also complicated, above all for economic reasons.


Father Raymond Girgis: Many families are thinking of returning, especially the Christian families. The way in which these families have been split up is a wound in the Church. To say nothing of all the psychological problems that the war has left behind and which we as the Church now have the task of healing.


Sister Jihane Elaoudatallah: Besides, with their houses demolished, where can they return to? How do you go back to a bombed-out house? On its own, the desire to return is not enough.


Marie Nasrallah: And even more so now that the devaluation of the currency makes is still harder to return to Syria. Daily life has become very expensive now.


Does the economic blockade on Syria pose problems for the return of the Syrian people?


Archbishop Samir Nassar: We are facing grave economic problems, because the value of our currency has fallen. Before the war, one US dollar was equal to 50 Syrian pounds, whereas now it is equivalent to 515! Yet meanwhile, people’s wages are the same as they were before. Syrians living abroad would be able to help us, but this is not possible owing to the Western sanctions. Those measures were taken against the Syrian government, but they only cause suffering to the poor, while the members of the government have other sources of income. Those who are really paying the consequences are the poor.


Sister Jihane Elaoudatallah: This situation only exacerbates the sufferings of the people, who have already been scattered and humiliated. Humiliated by having to ask for help, above all now that the sanctions have made it still harder to get help. For the families especially, the additional burden this places on them in bringing up their children is an enormous one.


Father Raymond Girgis: The sanctions are not bringing any positive results. There is a shortage of medicines in Syria; you cannot obtain them. These measures aren’t aimed at saving the people but are simply condemning them to go on living in a prison.


One last word?


Archbishop Samir Nassar: When Pope Francis speaks about our country, he speaks of “our beloved Syria”. He knows Syria, because there is a large community of Syrian emigres in Argentina. The Episcopal Family Commission would like to thank ACN, because you have helped us enormously in recent years – to support the families in need, to provide medicines for the sick, to continue with our pastoral work. But now we still need financial resources in order to rebuild our bombed out houses, in order to rebuild our country.

Since the beginning of the conflict, ACN has granted more than 25 million euros for emergency projects to Christian families in Syria, including almost 6 million in 2017. Currently the foundation is preparing a new campaign to help the reconstruction of the country and the return of the refugees in the coming months.

(1) Archbishop Samir Nassar, Maronite Archbishop of Damascus, was accompanied by Franciscan Father Raymond Girgis, Superior of the monastery of the Conversion of Saint Paul in Tabbaleh in Damascus, Sister Jihane Elaoudatallah of the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity, and a married couple, Jean-Pierre Bingly and Marie Nasrallah, who have been married for 24 years and are likewise members of the Family Commission.



Binish Paul is 18 years old and a Christian. She attends public school in Pakistan. On the 22nd of August, a young Muslim by the name of Taheer Abbas threw her from the second storey roof they were out on because she had refused to marry him and convert to Islam. “Another example of violence being used in order to force conversion”, Binish Paul’s solicitor Tabassum Yousaf explained in an interview with the pontifical foundation  Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).

“For months, Taheer had been putting pressure on Binish to convert to Islam. Over and over again, she refused. This culminated in the violent act, during which the young woman sustained severe fractures to her legs and spine.” As is often the case in such incidents, this puts the family of the young Christian woman in an extremely difficult position. The parents turned to the local police, but the officers declined to file charges. Moreover, the director of the hospital refused to issue the medical report necessary to document the injuries. “They also received serious threats from the family of the perpetrator. If the case were not closed, then they would all be accused of blasphemy,” Tabassum Yousaf, another Christian young woman from Pakistan says.

Fortunately, the solicitor filed the charges directly with the court so that the hospital was forced to provide a medical report. This made it possible to arrest the man on the 24th of August. “When similar attacks happen in our church community, the main problem is that the Christians in Pakistan often belong to the poorest social groups and are not aware of their rights. For example, hardly anyone knows that you can file charges with the courts. The refusal of the police to open a case, together with threats from the relatives and friends of the perpetrators, ensure that many families do not even report the crimes they have suffered.” Therefore, there are many incidents of young Christian women being forced to convert that never become public knowledge. “When I was studying law, I was also pressured by a young Muslim, a friend of mine. Fortunately my family and my brothers protected me. Young Christian women who come from simple circumstances, however, are powerless against their attackers.” According to Yousaf, each year, 15 to 30 cases similar to that experienced by Binish occur in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi alone. In comparison, the number of times these incidents are reported to the police can be counted on one hand. “Many people are afraid because the Muslim community threatens to rape or kill the women of these families.”

“In Pakistan, it is difficult to receive justice if you are a member of a religious minority,” Yousaf says. The judges are under pressure from the political parties. “They do not offer our brothers and sisters in faith adequate and fair legal assistance. Many members of minority groups are not even aware that they have the same rights as Muslims. As a Catholic solicitor, I consider it important that they have access to more information in this area and receive legal assistance. I am rendering this service for God and my church.”