On February 1, Pakistani Islamists in Lahore hold a poster displaying an image of Asia Bibi, a Christian Pakistani woman accused of blasphemy, with a noose and a knife, during a protest against the Supreme Court’s decision to acquit her. Photo: AFP

Asia Bibi, a Christian Pakistani woman at the center of a decade-long blasphemy row that ignited violent unrest and drew international attention to religious extremism, is now believed to be in Canada after fleeing her home country on Wednesday.

The Pakistani government made no formal statement and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau refused to confirm her arrival, citing privacy and security issues.

Bibi’s lawyer Saif ul Mulook and multiple security sources in Pakistan speaking on condition of anonymity told AFP that Bibi had gone to Canada, with another government source adding she had left “of her own free will.”

A laborer from central Punjab province and minority Christian, Bibi was convicted of blasphemy in 2010 and sentenced to death but was acquitted on appeal last year.

Her case swiftly became the most infamous in Pakistan, drawing worldwide attention to religious extremism in the country and raising eyebrows among Pakistan’s allies.

“The United States welcomes the news that Asia Bibi has safely reunited with her family,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.

“The United States uniformly opposes blasphemy laws anywhere in the world, as they jeopardize the exercise of fundamental freedoms.”

British Prime Minister Theresa May appeared to confirm that Canada was Bibi’s destination.

“Canada made this offer and we thought it was right and appropriate that we supported the offer that Canada had made,” May said.

Blasphemy carries a maximum death penalty under Pakistan’s penal code.

It is an incendiary issue in the Muslim-majority country, and mere allegations of insulting Islam have sparked lynchings and vigilante violence in the past.

“It is a great relief that this shameful ordeal has finally come to an end and Asia Bibi and her family are safe,” said Omar Waraich, deputy South Asia director at Amnesty International.

“She should never have been imprisoned in the first place, let alone endure the constant threats to her life. This case horrifyingly illustrates the dangers of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and the urgent need to repeal them.”

– with reporting by AFP

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