By Philippa Hitchen reporting from Vatican City
VATICAN CITY/ROME (BosNewsLife)-- Rome's most famous landmark, the Colosseum, will be lit up in red on Saturday, February 24, as a sign of solidarity with all those facing persecution for their faith. They include a Pakistani mother of five on death row who is expected to be released soon amid international pressure, family and organizers said.
The event, which starts 6 pm local time in Italy's capital, is the initiative of Aid to the Church in Need, the Pontifical Foundation that supports suffering Christians in over 140 countries around the world.
At the same time, in Syria, the Maronite Cathedral of St Elijah in war-torn Aleppo and St Paul’s church in the Iraqi city of Mosul will also be illuminated in red, symbolizing the blood of the many recent Christian martyrs there, according to Christians familiar with the situation.
The Rome event includes testimonies of two families targeted for their Christian faith: the husband and youngest daughter of Asia Bibi from Pakistan, who received a death sentence in 2010 for 'blasphemy' against Islam, and Nigerian Rebecca Bitrus, who spent two years as a hostage to the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram.
Bibi's daughter, Eisham Ashiq, told a Vatican News reporter and BosNewsLife contributor that she believes her mother "will be released from jail soon," though they will have to "leave Pakistan immediately, as her safety cannot be guaranteed. More details were not released, but several European officials and activists have negotiated with the Pakistani government, BosNewsLife learned.
Rights activists cautioned that it could take more time than Bibi’s daughter suggested. Christian aid group Farrukh Saif Foundation, which supports persecuted Pakistani Christians, expressed doubts that authorities would allow Bibi’s quick release. “I think it will take a long time. The government is against it,” said its director Farrukh H. Saif in a reaction to BosNewsLife.
APPEALING TO PRESIDENT
Bibi, 48, has been in prison since 2009 after she reportedly told Muslim co-workers that Jesus Christ is alive. She made the remarks while working in the fields for a Muslim landowner and trying to drink from a well, according to investigators.
(Watch this BosNewsLife News report via Vatican News. The story continues after this).
Eisham Ashiq said they appealed "to the president to grant her a pardon" and that they hope to meet with "Pope Francis on Saturday" to ask him "to pray for her freedom."
Rebecca Bitrus, who escaped horrors in Nigeria, said that despite her ordeal at the hands of Boko Haram militants she never lost her trust in God. Not even when her one-year-old son was killed, or when she was tortured and raped, resulting in the birth of another child.
As a general rule, BosNewsLife publishes names of rape victims only if they agree as in the case of Bitrus.
When she finally managed to flee, she said, "many people" urged her "to get rid of the child," but with the help of local Church leaders she has "learned to accept, and even to love, the son of her captors." She urged other women held hostage in Nigeria "to continue trusting in the Lord."
She said she had come to Pope Francis to ask him “if it’s possible to forgive those who cause so much pain and suffering truly."
Some 2000 years ago, Christians were tortured and killed in the Colosseum for refusing to renounce their faith.
In many countries around the world, that practice continues today, with thousands of Christians killed in 2017 alone, according to church officials and activists.
While the stories of most targeted Christians rarely make world news headlines, organizers said they hope that the event in Rome will make their voices heard and "end the indifference that surrounds their plight."
(BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos contributed to the story).