13 November 2018

The UK must stand up for liberal values and grant Asia Bibi asylum


Those who have been struggling to follow the tortuous Brexit negotiations can scarcely fail to conclude that we have a weak and vacillating Government. The obfuscation and cravenness has been an excruciating sight to behold. But however dominant that issue might be, there is another matter which has provoked greater anger from some of us.

The Daily Telegraph reports: “Britain has not offered asylum to a Pakistani Christian woman freed after eight years on death row for blasphemy because of fear it would prompt ‘unrest’ in the UK and attacks on embassies, her supporters claim.”

Asia Bibi is the woman in question. She is a farm labourer and mother of five,  who was accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad after an argument with her neighbours. Her death sentence was recently overturned, after lengthy deliberations, by Pakistan’s supreme court.

Justice Asif Khosa concluded that Bibi’s accusers “had no regard for the truth”, the allegation of blasphemy as “concoction incarnate” and that Bibi is “in the words of Shakespeare’s King Lear, ‘more sinned against than sinning’.”

Enraged by that leniency. riots broke out in Islamabad, Karachi and other major cities have responded by smashing shop windows, burned tyres, and throwing stones at police officers.

The initial response of the prime minister, Imran Khan, was a clear message that the Supreme Court’s  verdict must be respected. But subsequently the message of appeasement has gone out. Could a “middle way” be found? Some sort of trickly compromise between giving in to the mob and upholding the rule of law?

Utterly contemptible. Yet before we sneer too loudly we come back to the cowardly basis on which our own Government is acting in denying this woman sanctuary. Of course media reports can be inaccurate – even in such an esteemed organ as the Daily Telegraph. So I have waited for indignant ministerial denials. I am afraid that so far they have not come.

So not only in Pakistan but also in the UK the message goes out that mob rule works. That violence, or the threat of violence, will be rewarded with political concessions.

Perhaps the British Government makes some calculation that being “tough” and turning away those seeking asylum would be popular. I don’t believe that refusing to take any more refugees would be a stance favoured by most people – and if we are to take any at all, Bibi’s case could scarcely be more glaring in its merit.

It could come down to a misunderstanding of the motives for those who voted to leave the European Union. Polling by Lord Ashcroft and others has established that the most important factor was democracy – the wish for us to be an independent, self-governing nation. Other concerns – over the economy or immigration – were subordinate.

Furthermore, there should be a distinction between voting to control our own borders and voting against immigration. The suggestion that Leave voters were nativists – nostalgic and inward-looking, keen to pull up drawbridge – is a misrepresentation. It is usually what Remainers say Leavers think – not what Leavers say Leavers think.

What is rather more racist is the current arrangement of an open door to those from the European Union (who are mostly white) but a far more restrictive policy to those from the rest of the world (who mostly are not).

Control of our borders may well lead future Governments to decide to have a lower overall level of immigration. But within that total I predict it would make it easier to admit those with the skills we need and provide sanctuary for more refugees.

Our refugee policy should give far greater acknowledgement to the scale of Christian martyrdom taking place across the globe. We cannot comfort ourselves that such barbarism has been  consigned to the history books. It is happening today. More Christians are being killed for their beliefs than ever before.

The monitoring group Open Doors estimates than 100 million Christians around the world face persecution and that each month 322 Christians are killed purely because of their religion. Other estimates put the death toll much higher. The Centre for the Study of Global Christianity in the United States put it at 100,000 a year.

Getting an accurate figure for this grim tally is obviously impossible. We are dealing with chaotic war zones such as Syria and brutal totalitarian regimes including North Korea (where it is thought that 60,000 – perhaps a quarter of the country’s Christians — are in forced labour camps).

What is not disputed is that Christians are under attack more than any other group. A report from the Frankfurt-based International Society for Human Rights, which has no religious affiliation, found that 80 per cent of all acts of religious discrimination around the world are directed at Christians. Christian Solidarity Worldwide has reported on the struggles faced from China to Cuba to Sudan.

Often it is the Christians in refugee camps who are most at risk – but this additional peril they face is generally ignored.

Not that we should only taken Christians. We should be true to our tradition in seeking to welcome to our island those we can accommodate who are in need of safety due to their beliefs. It is a source of patriotic pride. From the Huguenots arriving from France five hundred years ago, to, in more recent times, the Ugandan Asians escaping Idi Amin, or the Vietnamese boat people who risked drowning to flee Communism.

While prompted by conscience to allow refuge we have been rewarded by the contribution so many of these people have made – not least by their entrepreneurial zeal.

Therefore let us resolve that far from Brexit being associated with xenophobia, we will aim to provide more of those facing persecution with a safe haven. We could make an early start by making Asia Bibi and her family very welcome.

Harry Phibbs is a freelance journalist.