Asia Bibi, the Catholic woman condemned to death under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, has had her conviction overturned by the Supreme Court in Pakistan.
She was told by the judge she was free to go immediately.
Asia Bibi herself responded from prison in Lahore: "I can't believe what I am hearing, will I go out now? Will they let me out, really?" She was speaking to a journalist from AFP who reached her by phone.
John Pontifex of Aid to the Church in Need (UK), said: “I spoke this morning to Asia’s daughter, Eisham, who is just 18, and she was so happy; it was almost as if she was crying tears of joy down the phone.”
He told The Tablet: “We have to salute the courage of the justices in reaching this decision in the face of huge opposition from powerful extremists mobs. This really is a victory for justice, a triumph of honesty and truth over tyranny and oppression.”
“For so many thousands of people who have prayed for Asia, this is a long-awaited day. We need to continue praying because now is the most delicate time. So many extremists want her dead and as the process towards her release gets under way, security concerns will be acute. Her family – indeed everyone associated with her – is in danger.”
Evangelical Christian writer and teacher Krish Kandiah said: "This is fantastic news. Asia Bibi is to be freed. Please pray for peace in Pakistan as the nation responds to the news."
The court in the capital, Islamabad, came to a decision on Asia Bibi’s case on Monday 8 October but decided to reserve its judgement until this morning.
In 2009 Bibi, who worked as a farmhand in Pakistan, was charged with blasphemy against Islam after she brought water from a well reserved for Muslims to a co-worker, who said Bibi had rendered the well “impure” because she was a Christian.
She was sentenced to death in 2010 during a trial at which the Muslim coworker and her sister were the only direct witnesses.
Her husband and daughter said the news of her acquittal was the “most wonderful moment” of their lives and thanked God for answering their prayers.
Asia Bibi's husband Ashiq and their daughter Eisham during their recent UK visit
She was the first woman in the country condemned to death for blasphemy.
The judgment of the three-man bench was read out by Chief Justice Saqib Nisarm.
It quotes the Prophet Muhammed: "Beware! Whoever is cruel and hard on a non-Muslim minority, or curtails their rights, or burdens them with more than they can bear, or takes anything from them against their free will; I, Prophet Muhammed, will complain against the person on the day of judgment."
Justice Asif Khosa writes in the judgment: “It is ironical that in the Arabic language the appellant’s name Asia means ‘sinful’, but in the circumstances of the present case she appears to be a person, in the words of Shakespeare’s King Lear, 'more sinned against than sinning'."
Eisham, 18, told Aid to the Church in Need: “I am so happy. I want to thank God." Speaking through an interpreter, she told the charity for persecuted Christians: “This is the most wonderful moment. I can’t wait to hug my mother and then celebrate with my family. I am grateful to God for listening to our prayers.”
Asia Bibi’s husband, Ashiq Masih, said: “We are very happy. This is wonderful news."
“We thank God very much that he’s heard our prayers – and the prayers of so many people who have longed for Asia Bibi’s release over all these years of suffering and anguish.”
Close family friend Joseph Nadeem said that on hearing the news the family immediately “danced for joy”. He added: “There were many tears – tears of indescribable joy.”
Neville Kyrke-Smith, National Director of Aid to the Church in Need (UK), said: “Today is like the dawn of new hope for oppressed minorities.”
Saluting the courage of the judges in acquitting Asia Bibi in the face of fierce opposition from Islamist protestors, he added: “It is important that justice is not just seen to be done but is done.”
And Father Emmanuel Yousaf, National Director of Pakistan’s Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, which supports people accused of blasphemy, said: “I am glad that justice has finally been served.
“In the current developing situation and protests by extremist groups, may our Lord bless and protect Asia and her family and keep all our Christian brothers and sisters safe here in Pakistan.”