The story of Asia Bibi, a Catholic woman in Pakistan who has been sentenced to death for blasphemy and is awaiting the decision of the Supreme Court this week, was one of the moving cases referred to at the annual event of Aid to the Church in Need in Westminster Cathedral Hall on 13 October.
Her daughter, Eisham Ashiq, aged 18, spoke out confidently and clearly through an interpreter, telling how her mother had been working in a field of berries in the Punjab when she was just nine. A dispute broke out with fellow workers when she took a drink of water, as they said she had defiled the cup because Christians were unclean. She spoke up for her faith and in no time was being accused of blasphemy, which carries the death sentence.
It has taken nearly ten years for her appeal to reach the Supreme Court, during which time Asia has been kept in a tiny cell in solitary confinement. Eisham told how it takes her six hours to travel to the prison, where she is then allowed a visit of only 15 to 20 minutes. Breaking into tears, Eisham told how she longs to have her mother home and hold her in her arms again.
There were also witnesses and stories from Syria, which Pope Francis has said is the greatest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War, and from Iraq, where 34 church buildings have been totally destroyed, 132 have been burnt, and 197 have been partially damaged. IS fighters offered minorities such as Christians three choices: convert to Islam; pay protection money (jizya); or die.
Martin Bashir, the BBC’s Religious Affairs correspondent, recalled how 29 children had been killed on Easter Sunday in a park in Lahore, Pakistan, in 2016; more than 45 were killed in Alexandria, Egypt, when celebrating Palm Sunday in 2017; and 238 Christians were murdered by militia in Plateau State, Nigeria, in June this year. An audience member was applauded when she asked why Christians receive so little coverage in the media when (she alleged) they are statistically the most persecuted group in the world.
The day concluded with every audience member laughingly putting on a pair of red-framed and red-tinted spectacles for a group photo to promote “Red Wednesday” coming up on 28 November. The day is to build awareness of the needs of persecuted Christians, and churches are being encouraged to blow up red balloons, sell cakes with red icing, or floodlight their buildings with red filters.