‘No regrets’: Saudi sisters hope for bright future after hiding in Hong Kong

Sisters from Saudi Arabia, who go by aliases Reem and Rawan, are pictured in Hong Kong, China March 20, 2019. REUTERS/Yuyang Wang

By Anne Marie Roantree and James Pomfret

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Two Saudi Arabian sisters are hoping for a “bright, beautiful future” after being granted asylum, fleeing what they describe as an abusive family and a repressive society.

The sisters fled from their family last September while on holiday in Sri Lanka and have been stranded in Hong Kong since an aborted attempt to get to Australia, where they hoped to secure asylum.

For reasons of safety, the sisters, aged 18 and 20, who say they were beaten by their father and brothers, asked that their names and faces not be revealed, nor the country to which they have now gone.

“Oh my God, I was so happy,” the curly haired younger sister told Reuters recently, describing how she felt when told asylum had been secured.

“I screamed ‘It’s real, it’s happening’ … It was just relief and unforgettable.”

The sisters spoke to Reuters in a room on the 22nd floor of a Hong Kong hotel shortly before they left the city. Hong Kong-based rights lawyer, Michael Vidler, who has been helping them, attended.

They said they had lived in fear for six months, shuttling between 15 safe houses, staying with a nun, families and at a shelter for abused women.

They feared being intercepted by Saudi officials or relatives and forced to return home, where they believe they could be punished for renouncing Islam, which is punishable by death under the Saudi system of Islamic law.

The Saudi consulate in Hong Kong has not responded to requests for comment.

In a statement late on Monday, Vidler confirmed the sisters had successfully traveled to a third country on “humanitarian visas”.

“To ensure their future security we will not be disclosing the third country where the sisters are now living, nor will we be providing any further details,” he wrote on the Facebook page of his law firm. “The sisters will not be giving any further media interviews.”

The sisters said they were treated harshly, at times beaten, by their brothers and father.

“They were like my jailer, like my prison officer. I was like a prisoner,” the younger sister previously told Reuters.

‘NO REGRET’

They were also critical of Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system that requires women to have a male relative’s permission to work, travel, marry, and even get some medical treatment.

“Women are just like slaves,” said the older sister, adding that her dream was to become a writer one day.

“I want to settle down and to feel safe, and (to know) that I have rights and I matter in that country. Just to live normal, and discover myself … because now I own my life.”

This is not the first case in Asia this year of young Saudi women fleeing what they said was repression.

In January, an 18-year-old Saudi woman was granted asylum in Canada after fleeing her family and barricading herself in a Bangkok hotel to resist being sent home.

Her case drew global attention to Saudi Arabia’s strict social rules, which rights groups say can trap women and girls as prisoners of abusive families.

The Saudi mission in Bangkok declined to comment on that case saying it was a family affair.

The kingdom has given women more rights in recent years. Women have been allowed to enter sports stadiums, vote in local elections, and take a greater role in the workforce as Saudi Arabia tries to diversify its oil-dependent economy.

A ban on driving was lifted last year but many women have taken to social media to push for more freedom. Campaigners say the main sticking point remains the guardianship policy.

‘FIND YOUR LIGHT’

Riyadh has also faced scrutiny from Western allies over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October and over the humanitarian consequences of its war in Yemen.

The sisters watched the news of Khashoggi’s death unfold while in hiding in Hong Kong.

“I said to my sister, ‘I’m glad we left. This is the country we left’, there is no regret at all,” said the older sister, who counts George Orwell’s “1984” as one of her favorite books and likened its dystopian society to her homeland.

“It’s a science fiction book but it’s real in Saudi,” she said.

The pair hatched their escape plan over several years, secretly hoarding about $5,000, partly by scrimping on items they were given money to buy, and had timed it to coincide with the younger sister’s 18th birthday.

They said they had been wracked with uncertainty as a deadline for them to leave Chinese-ruled Hong Kong passed last month. Amnesty International had urged Hong Kong authorities not to return the sisters to Saudi Arabia.

The younger sister, who counts Radiohead and Queen among her favorite bands, said she hoped to inspire young people to stand against social injustice.

“Don’t just stick to the wall and cry. Because if you would cry it would be worse … Fight in your own way and you will find your own light.”

Dressed in a red T-shirt, jeans and sneakers, she said she had no regrets.

“There’s a bright, beautiful future awaiting me.”

(Reporting by James Pomfret and Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Robert Birsel and Clarence Fernandez)

‘I was like a prisoner’: Saudi sisters trapped in Hong Kong recall beatings

Sisters from Saudi Arabia, who go by aliases Reem and Rawan, are pictured at an office in Hong Kong, China February 23, 2019. REUTERS/Aleksander Solum

By Anne Marie Roantree

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Two sisters from Saudi Arabia who fled the conservative kingdom and have been hiding out in Hong Kong for nearly six months said they did so to escape beatings at the hands of their brothers and father.

The pair, who say they have renounced their Muslim faith, arrived in the Chinese territory from Sri Lanka in September. They say they were prevented from boarding a connecting flight to Australia and were intercepted at the airport by diplomats from Saudi Arabia.

Reuters could not independently verify their story.

Asked about the case, Hong Kong police said they had received a report from “two expatriate women” in September and were investigating, but did not elaborate.

The Saudi consulate in Hong Kong has not responded to repeated requests from Reuters for comment.

The case is the second high-profile example this year of Saudi women seeking to escape their country and spotlights the kingdom’s strict social rules, including a requirement that females seek permission from a male “guardian” to travel.

The sisters, aged 18 and 20, managed to leave Hong Kong airport but consular officials have since revoked their passports, leaving them stranded in the city for nearly six months, their lawyer, Michael Vidler, said.

Vidler, one of the leading activist lawyers in the territory, also confirmed the authenticity of a Twitter account written by the two women describing their plight.

On Saturday, dressed in jeans and wearing sneakers, the softly spoken women described what they said was a repressive and unhappy life at their home in the Saudi capital Riyadh. They said they had adopted the aliases Reem and Rawan, because they fear using their real names could lead to their being traced if granted asylum in a third country.

They posed for pictures but asked their features not be revealed.

Every decision had to be approved by the men in their house, from the clothes they wore to the hairstyle they chose – even the times when they woke and went to sleep, the sisters told Reuters.

“They were like my jailer, like my prison officer. I was like a prisoner,” said the younger sister, Rawan, referring to two brothers aged 24 and 25 as well as her father.

“It was basically modern day slavery. You can’t go out of the house unless someone is with us. Sometimes we will stay for months without even seeing the sun,” the elder sister, Reem, said.

In January, a Saudi woman made global headlines by barricading herself in a Bangkok airport hotel to avoid being sent home to her family. She was later granted asylum in Canada.

“BROTHER BRAINWASHED”

Reem and Rawan said their 10-year-old brother was also encouraged to beat them.

“They brainwashed him,” Rawan said, referring to her older brothers. Although he was only a child, she said she feared her younger brother would become like her older siblings.

The family includes two other sisters, aged five and 12. Reem said she and her sister feel terrible about leaving them, although they “hope their family will get a lesson from this and it might help to change their lives for the better.”

Reem and Rawan decided to escape while on a family holiday in Sri Lanka in September. They had secretly saved around $5,000 since 2016, some of it accumulated by scrimping on items they were given money to buy.

The timing of their escape was carefully planned to coincide with Rawan’s 18th birthday so she could apply for a visitor’s visa to Australia without her parents’ approval.

But what was supposed to be a two-hour stopover in Hong Kong has turned into nearly six months and the sisters are now living in fear that they will be forcibly returned to Saudi Arabia.

They have said they have renounced Islam – a crime punishable by death under the Saudi system of sharia, or Islamic law, although the punishment has not been carried out in recent memory.

The pair say they have changed locations 13 times in Hong Kong, living in hotels, shelters and with individuals who are helping, sometimes staying just one night in a place before moving on to ensure their safety.

Vidler said the Hong Kong Immigration Department told the women their Saudi passports had been invalidated and they could only stay in the city until February 28.

The department has said it does not comment on individual cases.

The sisters have applied for asylum in a third country which they declined to name in a bid keep the information from Saudi authorities and their family.

“We believe that we have the right to live like any other human being,” said Reem, who said she studied English literature in Riyadh and dreams of becoming a writer one day.

Asked what would happen on Feb 28, after which they can no longer legally stay in Hong Kong, the sisters said they had no idea.

“I hope this doesn’t last any longer,” Rawan said.

(Reporting By Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Pakistani Christian woman acquitted of blasphemy ‘secure’, out of jail

Supporters of Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), a coalition of religious-political parties, hold flags and chant slogans as they attend a million march rally, after the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy against Islam, in Karachi, Pakistan November 8, 2018. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

By Asif Shahzad and Mubasher Bukhari

ISLAMABAD/LAHORE, Pakistan (Reuters) – A Pakistani Christian woman has been freed from prison a week after the Supreme Court overturned her conviction and death sentence for blasphemy against Islam, and she is at a secure location in the country, officials said on Thursday.

Officials dismissed some media reports that the woman, Asia Bibi, had been flown abroad, which would enrage hardline Islamists who have been protesting against her release and calling for her to be banned from leaving.

The release overnight of the mother of five prompted immediate anger from an Islamist party that has threatened to paralyze the country with street protests if her acquittal is not reversed.

Bibi, 53, was convicted of blasphemy in 2010 over allegations she made derogatory remarks about Islam after neighbors objected to her drinking water from their glass because she was not Muslim.

She always denied having committed blasphemy.

The case has outraged Christians worldwide, and Pope Francis met Bibi’s family this year, saying he prayed for her. Italy said on Tuesday it would try to help Bibi, who is Catholic, to leave Pakistan.

Pakistan’s foreign ministry denied reports that Bibi had left the country and pointed out that a review of the Supreme Court decision to free her was pending.

“Asia Bibi is completely secure at a safe place in Pakistan,” said ministry spokesman Mohammad Faisal.

“Her writ is in court, when that is decided, Asia Bibi can go anywhere she wants to, she is a free national … if she wants to go abroad, no harm in it.”

In Rome, the Catholic aid agency Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) said Bibi has been able to see her husband in an undisclosed location.

Their daughters were “close by” but had not yet seen their mother as of early afternoon, Pakistan time.

The agency, which arranged a meeting for Bibi’s husband and daughter with Pope Francis at the Vatican this year, said the family was awaiting visas but declined to disclose from which country for security reasons.

Insulting Islam’s Prophet Mohammad carries a mandatory death penalty in Pakistan, which is about 95 percent Muslim and has among the harshest blasphemy laws in the world.

No executions for blasphemy have been carried out in Pakistan but enraged mobs sometimes kill people accused of blasphemy.

Rights groups say the blasphemy law is exploited by hardliners as well as ordinary Pakistanis to settle personal scores.

Christians make up about 2 percent of the population.

‘AGITATED’

Security officials told Reuters early on Thursday that Bibi had been released from a prison in Multan, a city in the south of Punjab province.

She was flown to Islamabad and was in protective custody because of threats to her life, said three officials, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Bibi’s lawyer, who has fled Pakistan and this week sought asylum in the Netherlands, confirmed she was no longer in prison.

“All I can tell you is that she has been released,” lawyer Saif-ul-Mulook told Reuters by phone from the Netherlands, where the government said on Thursday it had offered him temporary asylum.

A spokesman for the hard-line Tehreek-e-Labaik (TLP) party, which took to the streets after the Supreme Court ruling, said her release violated a deal with the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan to end the protests.

“The TLP activists are agitated as the government has breached the agreement with our party. The rulers have showed their dishonesty,” party spokesman Ejaz Ashrafi told Reuters.

Under the deal, the government said it would not block a petition to the Supreme Court to review Bibi’s acquittal in light of sharia, Islamic religious law, the TLP said.

It also said the government promised to work to ensure Bibi could not leave the country.

If the government allows Bibi to leave, it would likely face more paralyzing protests from the TLP and other Islamist parties.

(Reporting by Asif Shahzad and Saad Sayeed in ISLAMABAD, and Philip Pullella in ROME, Bart Meijer in AMSTERDAM; Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Grant McCool, Robert Birsel)

Canada says safety of Pakistani woman in blasphemy case a ‘priority’

OTTAWA (Reuters) – Canada urged Pakistan on Tuesday to ensure the well-being of a Pakistani Christian woman whose life is in danger after having been acquitted in the South Asian country last month of blasphemy charges against Islam, a ruling that sparked mass protests.

The case of Asia Bibi, who spent eight years on death row in Pakistan before being released, has outraged Christians worldwide. Bibi’s husband, Ashiq Masih, has appealed for help to Britain, Canada, Italy and the United States, and so far, Italy has said it would assist her.

“It’s a very important issue, a central priority for our government,” Canada’s foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, said of Bibi’s case after meeting her European Union counterpart, Federica Mogherini, in Montreal.

Bibi was convicted of blasphemy in 2010 after neighbors said she made derogatory remarks about Islam when they objected to her drinking water from their glass because she was not Muslim. She is a Protestant and denies committing blasphemy.

“Canada calls on Pakistan to take all measures necessary to ensure the safety and security of Asia Bibi and her family,” Freeland said. “Canada is prepared to do everything we can” and is “extremely engaged in this issue,” Freeland said.

Islamists shut down roads in major cities in Pakistan during three days of demonstrations against Bibi’s acquittal. They have threatened to escalate the protests if she is permitted to leave the country. The government has indicated it will bar her from traveling abroad.

Bibi’s lawyer, Saiful Mulook, fled to the Netherlands earlier this week because of fears for the safety of his family.

(Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

Lawyer of freed Christian woman leaves Pakistan a ‘prime target’

Saiful Mulook, lawyer of Christian woman Asia Bibi, addresses a news conference at the International Press Centre in The Hague, the Netherlands November 5, 2018. REUTERS/Eva Plevier

By Bart H. Meijer

THE HAGUE (Reuters) – The Pakistani lawyer who helped free a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy said on Monday he had been forced to flee to the Netherlands for his life, and has no idea where his client is.

Lawyer Saiful Mulook, who defended Asia Bibi in a case that has led to the assassination of two Pakistani politicians, said local United Nations staff had urged him to leave the country on Saturday following her acquittal last week.

“I was put on a plane against my wishes,” Mulook told reporters in The Hague. “I am not happy to be without her. I would have been much happier if I was in the same place as her. But everybody said I was a prime target.”

Mulook said he did not know whether Bibi had already been released from prison, or where she would want to seek asylum after being acquitted by the Supreme Court on Wednesday.

“Ask the people of the U.N.”, Mulook said. “They are not telling me, for security reasons.”

Bibi was convicted in 2010 for allegedly making derogatory remarks about Islam during an argument with her neighbors, and had been on death row since then.

The court’s decision to overturn the verdict led to violent protests throughout Pakistan by angry mobs calling for the judges in the case to be killed.

Several parties in the Dutch parliament have said they support providing temporary shelter to Bibi if she flees there.

Mulook said Italy had offered asylum to both Bibi and her family and his own family, but that they had not accepted the offer straightaway, as U.N. staff said they would make arrangements.

Islamists have shut down major cities in Pakistan through days of demonstrations against Bibi’s acquittal. They have said they would escalate the protests if she were permitted to leave the country. The government has indicated it will bar her from traveling abroad.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch; editing by David Stamp)

Pakistani Christian woman’s blasphemy ordeal highlights plight of minorities

FILE PHOTO: The daughters of Pakistani Christian woman Asia Bibi pose with an image of their mother while standing outside their residence in Sheikhupura located in Pakistan's Punjab Province November 13, 2010. REUTERS/Adrees Latif/File Photo

By Asif Shahzad and Kay Johnson

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Until one sweltering day in 2009, Asia Bibi led a simple life with her husband and children in rural Pakistan. Hers was one of only three Christian families in her village but they’d never had much trouble from Muslim neighbors, relatives say.

“She was an innocent, loving and caring ordinary woman,” said Bibi’s brother-in-law, Joseph Nadeem. “She and her husband both were farm workers. They had five kids and a happy life.”

Then, a dispute over a cup of water with fellow field laborers led to Bibi being sentenced to death for blasphemy against Islam. She spent eight years on death row before Pakistan’s Supreme Court overturned her conviction this week and ordered her freed.

Bibi’s ordeal has become symbolic of the difficulties that Pakistan’s tiny Christian population, only 2.6 percent of the country of 208 million, faces along with other religious minorities as hard-line Islamist movements grow stronger.

Her family is now in hiding for fear of attacks by Islamists angry at the ruling, and still waiting to be reunited with Bibi

“You know my two youngest daughters were below age of 10 when their mother went away … They don’t remember spending much time with her,” Bibi’s husband, Ashiq Masih, told Reuters by telephone.

The family has four daughters and one son, he said.

“We are thankful to the court that it decided the case considering us human beings instead of any discrimination on the base of faith or religion.”

He said Bibi, who is about 50, has not been released from prison pending arrangements for her safety.

Thousands of members of a hardline Islamist party have blockaded roads for two days in major Pakistani cities to protest against the Supreme Court’s decision, even calling for the assassination of the judges who made the ruling.

“She can’t be safe here,” brother-in-law Nadeem said. “You know what’s going on outside. We want things to settle down before we go ahead for her release.”

Supporters of the religious party Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam - Fazal-ur Rehman (JUI-F) raise their hands as they chant slogans, after the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy against Islam, during a protest rally in Karachi, Pakistan November 1, 2018. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

Supporters of the religious party Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam – Fazal-ur Rehman (JUI-F) raise their hands as they chant slogans, after the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy against Islam, during a protest rally in Karachi, Pakistan November 1, 2018. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

DISCRIMINATION

The rise of Islamist parties such as Tehreek-e-Labaik (TLP), which has made “death to blasphemers” its main rallying cry, has many of Pakistan’s religious minorities worried.

Though the TLP gained no National Assembly seats in a general election this year, it won 2.2 million votes nationwide. The party’s fiery rhetoric also pulled much of the political discourse to the right in this deeply conservative country.

Pakistan is about 96 percent Sunni and Shi’ite Muslim, with Christians, Hindus and members the Ahmadi faith making up tiny minorities.

Christians in Pakistan are often targeted in attacks by militants, including a pre-Christmas suicide bomb attack last year on a Methodist church that killed more than 50 people in the southwestern city of Quetta. The attack was claimed by Islamic State’s local affiliate.

Christians are also frequent targets of discrimination and violence. In 2013, a mob burned down more than 125 Christian homes in a neighborhood of Lahore after rumors spread that a Christian resident had insulted the Prophet Mohammad.

Religious minorities are also far more likely to be charged with blasphemy than Muslims.

Despite their tiny percentage of the population, Christians, Hindus and Ahmadis made up half of the 1,549 cases of blasphemy filed over three decades through 2017, according to Peter Jacobs, the Christian head of the Centre for Social Justice, which compiled the numbers.

Pakistan’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion and – as the Supreme Court’s ruling Wednesday stressed – Islam’s holy Koran stresses tolerance and fighting injustice. The ruling said that evidence against Bibi was insufficient to convict her.

Bibi’s family says that for years, they lived side by side with Muslim neighbors in the village of Ikkawali, in the bread-basket province of Punjab.

“You know, the society we live in, we are often discriminated against as Christians but she was living a happy life,” said Nadeem.

‘ENEMY’

That all changed on June 14, 2009, when Bibi offered a cup of water to her Muslim fellow field workers. A woman refused, saying anything from the hand of a Christian was unclean, according to the Supreme Court ruling.

The incident led to harsh words and a police complaint several days later, then the court case that saw Bibi sentenced to death.

“Just sipping water from a mug made the whole village her enemy,” said Nadeem.

With Bibi soon to be free, her family is struggling to make plans. They would prefer to leave the country to be safe, but there are plans in place.

“We haven’t got any contact yet either from Pakistani authorities or anyone from outside,” Nadeem said.

Yet, despite all the family has been through, Bibi’s husband Masih said he would be sad to be forced to leave his homeland.

“We’re also part of Pakistan,” he said.

“This is our country. We love it.”

(Additional reporting by Mubasher Bukhari; Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Protests after Pakistan frees Christian woman sentenced to death over blasphemy

Supporters of religious and political party Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) hold their palms to pray in a protest, after the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy against Islam, in Karachi, Pakistan October 31, 2018. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

By Asif Shahzad and Mubasher Bukhari

ISLAMABAD/LAHORE (Reuters) – Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Wednesday freed a Christian woman from a death sentence for blasphemy against Islam and overturned her conviction, sparking angry protests and death threats from an ultra-Islamist party and cheers from human rights advocates.

New Prime Minister Imran Khan issued a warning to the religious right late in the evening that any prolonged blockade of streets would be met with action.

Asia Bibi, a mother of four, had been living on death row since 2010, when she became the first woman to be sentenced to death by hanging under Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws, which critics say are too harsh and often misused.

She was condemned for allegedly making derogatory remarks about Islam after neighbors objected to her drinking water from their glass because she was not Muslim. Bibi has always denied committing blasphemy.

The case has outraged Christians worldwide – Pope Francis said he personally prayed for Bibi – and has been a source of division within Pakistan, where two politicians who sought to help Bibi were assassinated.

Chief Justice Saqib Nisar, who headed a special three-judge bench set up for the appeal, cited the Koran in the ruling, writing that “tolerance is the basic principle of Islam” and noting the religion condemns injustice and oppression.

In overturning her conviction, the ruling said the evidence against Bibi was insufficient.

Bibi did not appear in the courtroom and her whereabouts were a closely held secret for fear of attacks on her and her family. Many have speculated they will be forced to leave the country, but there was no confirmation of their plans.

Her lawyer called the court ruling “great news” for Pakistan.

“Asia Bibi has finally been served justice,” lawyer Saiful Mulook told Reuters. “Pakistan’s Supreme Court must be appreciated that it upheld the law of the land and didn’t succumb to any pressure.”

Supporters of the Tehrik-e-Labaik Pakistan Islamist political party block the Faizabad junction to protest after the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy against Islam, in Islamabad, Pakistan October 31, 2018. REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood

Supporters of the Tehrik-e-Labaik Pakistan Islamist political party block the Faizabad junction to protest after the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy against Islam, in Islamabad, Pakistan October 31, 2018. REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood

DEATH THREATS

Supporters of Islamist political party Tehreek-e-Labaik (TLP) immediately condemned Wednesday’s ruling and blocked roads in major cities, pelting police with stones in the eastern city of Lahore.

Street protests and blockades of major roads were spreading by mid-afternoon, paralyzing parts of Islamabad, Lahore and other cities.

One of the TLP’s top leaders called for the death of Nisar, the chief justice, and the two other judges on the panel.

“They all three deserve to be killed. Either their security should kill them, their driver kill them, or their cook kill them,” TLP co-founder Muhammad Afzal Qadri told a protest in Lahore.

“Whoever, who has got any access to them, kill them before the evening.”

He also called for the ouster of Khan’s new government of and for army officers to rise up against powerful military chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who he said “should be sacked from the army”.

Khan addressed the nation in a televised speech on Wednesday night, supporting the court ruling and warning the ultra-Islamists not to disrupt the nation.

“We will not allow any damages to occur. We will not allow traffic to be blocked,” Khan said. “I appeal to you, do not push the state to the extent that it is forced to take action.”

The TLP was founded out of a movement supporting a bodyguard who assassinated Punjab provincial governor Salman Taseer for advocating for Bibi in 2011. Federal minister for minorities Shahbaz Bhatti was also killed after calling for her release.

In November, TLP staged a crippling blockade of Islamabad after small changes to a religious oath taken by election candidates, which it said were tantamount to blasphemy. Seven people were killed and more than 200 wounded in clashes with the police and TLP’s supporters only dispersed after striking a deal with the military.

BLASPHEMY LAW CRITICIZED

In February, Bibi’s husband, Ashiq Masih, and one of her daughters met Pope Francis shortly before Rome’s ancient Coliseum was lit in red one evening in solidarity with persecuted Christians, and Bibi in particular.

The pope told Bibi’s daughter: “I think often of your mother and I pray for her.”

Christians make up only about 2 percent of Pakistan’s population and are often discriminated against.

Dozens of Pakistanis – including many minority Christians or members of the Ahmadi faith – have been sentenced to death for blasphemy in the past decade, though no one has been executed.

Rights groups say the blasphemy law is exploited by religious extremists as well as ordinary Pakistanis to settle personal scores.

Additionally, at least 65 people have been murdered over blasphemy allegations since 1990, including a 23-year-old student beaten to death on his university campus last year.

“This is a landmark verdict,” said Omar Waraich, deputy South Asia director for Amnesty International. “The message must go out that the blasphemy laws will no longer be used to persecute the country’s most vulnerable minorities.”

(Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Nick Macfie and Alex Richardson)

Israel’s Netanyahu to make ‘significant’ announcement on Iran

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, April 29, 2018. Sebastian Scheiner/Pool via Reuters/File Photo

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will make a televised announcement Monday evening (1700 GMT) in what his office said would be a “significant development” regarding the nuclear agreement with Iran.

The announcement will be made from Israel’s military headquarters in Tel Aviv, according to a brief statement from Netanyahu’s office.

“Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will make a statement on a significant development regarding the nuclear agreement with Iran,” the statement said, offering no further details.

Netanyahu met on Sunday with new U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the two had spoken about Iran.

Speaking alongside the Israeli leader, Pompeo said in Tel Aviv: “We remain deeply concerned about Iran’s dangerous escalation of threats towards Israel and the region.”

Netanyahu had said: “I think the greatest threat to the world and to our two countries, and to all countries, is the marriage of militant Islam with nuclear weapons, and specifically the attempt of Iran to acquire nuclear weapons.”

U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to withdraw from the 2015 agreement reached between Iran and global powers, which granted Tehran relief from economic sanctions in return for curbs to its nuclear program.

Israel has long opposed the agreement. Washington’s major European allies have urged the Trump administration not to abandon it and argue that Iran is abiding by its terms.

(Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch; Editing by Peter Graff)

Nigeria’s Boko Haram has abducted more than 1,000 children since 2013: U.N.

FILE PHOTO: Nigerian soldiers hold up a Boko Haram flag that they had seized in the recently retaken town of Damasak, Nigeria, March 18, 2015. REUTERS/Emmanuel Braun/File Photo

ABUJA (Reuters) – Islamist fighters from Nigeria’s Boko Haram group have abducted more than 1,000 children in the northeast since 2013, the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF said on Friday.

The militants regularly took youngsters to spread fear and show power, the agency said on the eve of the fourth anniversary of the abduction of 276 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok, a case that triggered global outrage.

“Children in northeastern Nigeria continue to come under attack at a shocking scale,” said Mohamed Malick Fall, UNICEF’s Nigeria head.

The agency said it had documented more than 1,000 verified cases, the first time it had published an estimated tally. But the actual number could be much larger, it added.

It said it had interviewed one young woman, Khadija, now 17, who was abducted after a Boko Haram attack on her town, then locked in a room, forced to marry one of the fighters and repeatedly raped.

She became pregnant and “now lives with her young son in an IDP (displaced persons) camp, where she has struggled to integrate with the other women due to language barriers and the stigma of being a ‘Boko Haram wife’,” UNICEF said.

At least 2,295 teachers have been killed and more than 1,400 schools have been destroyed in the conflict, it added.

POLITICALLY CHARGED

The Boko Haram conflict is in its tenth year, but shows little sign of ending. In February, one faction kidnapped more than 100 schoolgirls from the town of Dapchi, previously untouched by the war.

A month later, the militants returned almost all of those girls. About five died while in Boko Haram hands. One other, Leah Sharibu, remains captive because she refused to convert to Islam, her freed classmates have said.

The government said the release was a prelude to ceasefire talks, though some insurgency experts disagree, saying it violated that faction’s ideology to kidnap Muslims.

Boko Haram remains a charged issue politically. President Muhammadu Buhari in 2015 rode to power on promises to end the insurgency. But his administration has failed to defeat Boko Haram, despite pushing the militants out of many towns in the northeast by 2016.

On Monday, Buhari said he plans to seek re-election in 2019.

Four years since the Chibok abduction, about 100 of the schoolgirls are unaccounted for. Some may be dead, according to testimony from the rescued girls and Boko Haram experts.

Boko Haram in January released a video purporting to show some of the missing Chibok girls, saying they wish to remain with their captors.

(Reporting by Paul Carsten; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

Saudi crown prince says Israelis have right to their own land

FILE PHOTO: Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud is seen during a meeting with U.N Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at the United Nations headquarters in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S. March 27, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Levy/File Photo

RIYADH (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia’s crown prince said Israelis are entitled to live peacefully on their own land in an interview published on Monday in U.S. magazine The Atlantic, another public sign of ties between Riyadh and Tel Aviv appearing to grow closer.

Asked if he believes the Jewish people have a right to a nation-state in at least part of their ancestral homeland, Mohammed bin Salman was quoted as saying:

“I believe the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land. But we have to have a peace agreement to assure the stability for everyone and to have normal relations.”

Saudi Arabia – birthplace of Islam and home to its holiest shrines – does not recognize Israel. It has maintained for years that normalizing relations hinges on Israeli withdrawal from Arab lands captured in the 1967 Middle East war, territory Palestinians seek for a future state.

“We have religious concerns about the fate of the holy mosque in Jerusalem and about the rights of the Palestinian people. This is what we have. We don’t have any objection against any other people,” Prince Mohammed said.

Increased tension between Tehran and Riyadh has fueled speculation that shared interests may push Saudi Arabia and Israel to work together against what they see as a common Iranian threat.

Saudi Arabia opened its airspace for the first time to a commercial flight to Israel last month, which an Israeli official hailed as historic following two years of efforts.

In November, an Israeli cabinet member disclosed covert contacts with Saudi Arabia, a rare acknowledgment of long-rumored secret dealings which Riyadh still denies.

(Reporting by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)