To her neighbors, Aasiya Noreen "Asia" Bibi, a poor mother of five in the tiny village of Ittan Wali Nankana Sahab in central Pakistan, was guilty - guilty of being Christian in a nation that is 97% Muslim. For five years she has languished in a prison cell for this, facing death by hanging.
Her new memoir, "Blasphemy," was dictated to her husband from jail, who relayed it to French journalist Anne-Isabelle Tollet. Fifty percent of the proceeds the book will go to support Bibi and her family. Tollet says the situation is dire. Embarrassed by Bibi's case but still refusing to release her because of angry protests by extremists, the Pakistan government has transferred her to a more remote prison, hoping the 44-year-old dies quietly behind bars, perhaps poisoned by another inmate. Already two government officials who have spoken out on her behalf have been murdered, including Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti, who was killed by the Taliban. In this excerpt, Bibi explains the simple "transgression" that led to her plight.
I am the victim of a cruel, collective injustice.
I've been locked up, handcuffed and chained, banished from the world and waiting to die. I don't know how long I've got left to live. Every time my cell door opens my heart beats faster. My life is in God's hands and I don't know what's going to happen to me. It's a brutal, cruel existence. But I am innocent. I'm guilty only of being presumed guilty. I'm starting to wonder whether being a Christian in Pakistan today is not just a failing, or a mark against you, but actually a crime.
But though I am kept in a tiny, windowless cell, I want my voice and my anger to be heard. I want the whole world to know that I'm going to be hanged for helping my neighbor. I'm guilty of having shown someone sympathy. What did I do wrong? I drank water from a well belonging to Muslim women, using "their" cup, in the burning heat of the midday sun.
I, Asia Bibi, have been sentenced to death because I was thirsty. I'm a prisoner because I used the same cup as those Muslim women, because water served by a Christian woman was regarded as unclean by my stupid fellow fruit-pickers.
That day, June 14, 2009, is imprinted on my memory. I can still see every detail.
That morning I got up earlier than usual, to take part in the big falsa-berry harvest. I'd been told about it by Farah, our lovely local shopkeeper. "Why don't you go falsa picking tomorrow in that field just outside the village? You know the one; it belongs to the Nadeem, the rich family who live in Lahore. The pay is 250 rupees (US $ 2.35)."
Because it was Sunday, my husband Ashiq wasn't working in the brickworks. While I was getting ready to go to work he was still fast asleep in the big family bed with two of our daughters, who were also worn out after a long week at school. I looked at them with love before I left the room, and thanked God for giving me such a wonderful family.
When I got to the field, around 15 women were already at work, picking away, their backs hidden by the tall bushes. It was going to be a physically exhausting day in such heat, but I needed those 250 rupees.
Some of the women greeted me with a smile. I recognized my neighbor, Musarat, who was the seamstress in my village. I gave her a little wave, but she turned back to the bushes again at once. Musarat wasn't really an agricultural worker and I didn't often see her in the fields, so I realized times must be hard for her family. In the end, it was just our lot to be poor, all of us.
A hard-faced woman dressed in clothes that had been mended many times came over to me with an old yellow bowl.
"If you fill the bowl you get 250 rupees," she said without really looking at me.
I looked at the huge bowl and thought I would never finish before sunset. Looking at the other women's bowls, I also realized mine was much bigger. They were reminding me that I'm a Christian.
The sun was beating down, and by midday it was like working in an oven. I was dripping with sweat and I could hardly think or move for the suffocating heat. In my mind, I could see the river beside my village. If only I could have jumped into that cool water!
But since the river was nowhere near, I freed myself from my bushes and walked over to the nearby well. Already I could sense the coolness rising up from the depths.
I pull up a bucketful of water and dip in the old metal cup resting on the side of the well. The cool water is all I can think of. I gulp it down and I feel better; I pull myself together.
Then I start to hear muttering. I pay no attention and fill the cup again, this time holding it out to a woman next to me who looks like she's in pain. She smiles and reaches out ... At exactly the moment Musarat pokes her ferrety nose out from the bush, her eyes full of hate:
"Don't drink that water, it's haram!"
Musarat addresses all the pickers, who have suddenly stopped work at the sound of the word "haram," the Islamic term for anything forbidden by God.
"Listen, all of you, this Christian has dirtied the water in the well by drinking from our cup and dipping it back several times. Now the water is unclean and we can't drink it! Because of her!"
It's so unfair that for once I decide to defend myself and stand up to the old witch.
"I think Jesus would see if differently from Mohammed (PBUH)."
Musarat is furious. "How dare you think for the Prophet, you filthy animal!"
Three other women start shouting even louder.
"That's right, you're just a filthy Christian! You've contaminated our water and now you dare speak for the Prophet!Stupid bitch, your Jesus didn't even have a proper father, he was a bastard, don't you know that."
Musarat comes over as though she's going to hit me and yells: "You should convert to Islam to redeem yourself for your filthy religion."
I feel a pain deep inside. We Christians have always stayed silent: We've been taught since we were babies never to say anything, to keep quiet because we're a minority. But I'm stubborn too and now I want to react, I want to defend my faith. I take a deep breath and fill my lungs with courage.
"I'm not going to convert. I believe in my religion and in Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for the sins of mankind. What did your Prophet Mohammed ever do to save mankind? And why should it be me that converts instead of you?"
That's when the hatred bursts from all side. All around me the women start screaming. One of them grabs my bowl and tips the berries into her own. Another one shoves and Musarat spits in my face with all the scorn she can manage. A foot lashes out and they push me. Even when I run home, I can still hear them complaining.
Five days later, I went to work fruit picking in another field. I've almost filled my bowl when I hear what sounds like a rioting crowd. I step back from my bush, wondering what's going on, and in the distance I see dozens of men and women striding along towards our field, waving their arms in the air.
I catch the cruel eyes of Musarat. Her expression is self-righteous and full of scorn. I shiver as I suddenly realize that she hasn't let it go. I can tell she's out for revenge. The excited crowd are closer now; they are coming into the field and now they're standing in front of me, threatening and shouting.
"Filthy bitch! We're taking you back to the village! You insulted our Prophet! You'll pay for that with your life!"
They all start yelling:
"Death! Death to the Christian!"
The angry crowd is pressing closer and closer around me. I'm half lying on the ground when two men grab me by the arms to drag me away. I call out in a desperate, feeble voice:
"I haven't done anything! Let me go, please! I haven't done anything wrong!"
Just then someone hits me in the face. My nose really hurts and I'm bleeding. They drag me along, semi-conscious, like a stubborn donkey. I can only submit and pray that it will all stop soon. I look at the crowd, apparently jubilant that I've put up so little resistance. I stagger as the blows rain down on my legs, my back and the back of my head. I tell myself that when we get to the village perhaps my sufferings will be over. But when we arrive there it's worse: there are even more people and the crowd turn more and more aggressive, calling all the louder for my death.
More and more people join the crowd as they push me towards the home of the village headman. I recognize the house - it's the only one that has a garden with grass growing in it. They throw me to the ground. The village imam speaks to me: "I've been told you've insulted our Prophet. You know what happens to anyone who attacks the holy Prophet Mohammed. You can redeem yourself only by conversion or death."
"I haven't done anything! Please! I beg you! I've done nothing wrong!"
The qari with his long, well-combed beard, turns to Musarat and the three women who were there on the day of the falsa harvest.
"Did she speak ill of Muslims and our holy Prophet Mohammed?"
"Yes, she insulted them," replies Musarat, and the others join in:
"It's true, she insulted our religion."
"If you don't want to die," says the young mullah, "you must convert to Islam. Are you willing to redeem yourself by becoming a good Muslim?"
Sobbing, I reply:
"No, I don't want to change my religion. But please believe me, I didn't do what these women say, I didn't insult your religion. Please have mercy on me."
I put my hands together and plead with him. But he is unmoved.
"You're lying! Everyone says you committed this blasphemy and that's proof enough. Christians must comply with the law of Pakistan, which forbids any derogatory remarks about the holy Prophet. Since you won't convert and the Prophet cannot defend himself, we shall avenge him."
He turns on his heel and the angry crowd falls on me. I'm beaten with sticks and spat at. I think I'm going to die. Then they ask me again:
"Will you convert to a religion worthy of the name?"
"No, please, I'm a Christian, but I beg you . . . "
And they go on beating me with the same fury as before.
I was barely conscious and could hardly feel the pain of my wounds by the time the police arrived. Two policemen threw me in their van, to cheers from the angry crowd, and a few minutes later I was in the police station in Nankana Sahib.
In the police chief's office they sat me down on a bench. I asked for water and compresses for the wounds on my legs, which were streaming with blood. A young policeman threw me an old dishcloth and spat out at me:
"Here, and don't get it everywhere."
One of my arms really hurt and I thought it might be broken. Just then I saw the qari come in with Musarat and her gang. With me sitting there they told the police chief that I insulted the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) . From outside the police station I could hear shouts:
"Death to the Christian!"
After writing up the report the policeman turned and called to me in a nasty voice:
"So what have you got to say for yourself?"
"I'm innocent! It's not true! I didn't insult the Prophet!"
Immediately after I'd protested my innocence I was manhandled into the police van and driven away. During the journey I passed out from pain and only came back to myself as we were arriving at Sheikhupura prison, where I was thrown into a cell.
Since that day I haven't left prison.
To learn more about Persecution in Pakistan and Blasphemy Laws please click on the following links...