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Sky Views: The fist of the bullies should not force the hand of governments

Colin Brazier, Sky News presenter

In 1995 I went to midnight Mass, the Christmas Eve service often celebrated with trepidation in Britain by Catholic priests – because of the number of drunks who roll in for once-a-year communion.

But at this service there were no half-cut congregants. Only a packed cathedral and worshippers sitting, standing and genuflecting with a concentrated dignity.

For this was Lahore, the ancient Punjab city, Pakistan’s second most-populous city.

It was also home to a discrete but thriving Christian community. Unlike many Western churches, the pews in Pakistan were full. A reminder that efforts to marginalise a faith can often prove counter-productive.

I have visited Pakistan several times since. And each time there is little doubt that the place of minorities grows more precarious.

And the scandalous case of Asia Bibi reminds us how discrimination can easily devolve to persecution.

Asia, a mother of five, continues to languish in “protective custody”, even though judges have ordered her to be freed. She faced charges of blasphemy – subsequently overturned – but her release was stopped by Imran Khan’s government.

The reason was clear to anyone who saw the mobs of protesters brandishing placards emblazoned with slogans like ‘Hang Asia’.

The crowds called onto the streets by hardliners exert a terrible, almost irresistible, force in Pakistan. I speak from experience.

Seventeen years ago I found myself surrounded by a mob in Karachi and only escaped thanks to the intervention of two Pakistani men with strong north of England accents.

But the fist of the bullies should not force the hand of governments – especially our own.

Yet that is what appears to have happened in the UK. Reports suggest Britain has withdrawn or declined to offer asylum to Asia Bibi and her family – for fear of sparking unrest.

Sadly, this is nothing new. Even countries in the vanguard of the human rights movement have succumbed to pressure like this.

Recall how the Somalian-heritage Dutchwoman Aayan Hirsi-Ali was forced to flee the Netherlands for the safety of America. Her “crime”? Not blasphemy, but apostasy.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Asia Bibi may also be bound for North America. Several news agencies suggest Canada may offer her a place of safety denied to her in Europe.

Of course, we should try to understand the enormous personal peril faced by Pakistani politicians. I interviewed Imran Khan several times before he made the jump from cricket captain to prime minister.

He struck me as a sane voice in a troubled country. So did Benazir Bhutto when I spoke with her.

But she was bloodily cut-down, as were several politicians who stood up for minorities in Pakistan.

Standing up for what is right is potentially a matter of life and death in Pakistan.

But in Britain? As the former colonial power and one of the reasons Pakistan has a Christian community, Britain has a particular responsibility.

If you listen very carefully, that silence you can hear is the sound of official UK government policy on this important but neglected topic.

Sky Views is a series of comment pieces by Sky News editors and correspondents, published every morning.

Previously on Sky Views: Siobhan Robbins – We need to talk about crying selfies

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