Memorial events honor Bishop John Joseph, who killed himself in 1998 to highlight persecution and injustice
Peter Jacob, executive director of the Centre for Social Justice, lights a candle on the pedestal dedicated to the memory of Bishop John Joseph at Falettis Hotel in Lahore on May 6. (Photo: Kamran Chaudhry/UCA News)
The suicide of Bishop John Joseph in Pakistan in 1998 helped to deter the judicial execution of those charged with blasphemy, say Catholic leaders.
“It helped in creating awareness and saving the lives of those accused, including Christians and Muslims. If there had been silence, many would have been hanged. We prefer the term sacrifice over suicide. It became a positive point,” Father Khalid Rashid Asi of Faisalabad Diocese told UCA News.
The director of the Diocesan Commission for Harmony and Interfaith Dialogue was speaking at the May 6 memorial seminar in Lahore to mark the 24th death anniversary of Bishop John Joseph of Faisalabad, Punjab province.
The first Punjabi priest and the first indigenous Catholic bishop took his own life on May 6, 1998, to protest the situation of minorities in Pakistan, particularly the law under which anyone convicted of blaspheming the Prophet Muhammad is automatically sentenced to death. He shot himself in front of a court after a Christian, Ayub Masih, was sentenced to death.
In 2002, the Supreme Court of Pakistan reversed Masih’s conviction, acquitted him of all charges and released him from death row.
Blasphemy is legally punishable by death in Pakistan. No one has been executed for it by the state but accusations can often lead to violent attacks and murders.
“We call it martyrdom. It was his way of highlighting the atrocities committed in the name of blasphemy. He wanted to bring the world’s attention to this bloodshed in the name of religion"
According to the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), which organized the Lahore seminar, at least 1,949 people were subjected to false allegations, prolonged trials and displacement between 1985 and December 2021. It added that at least 84 were killed after being suspected or accused under the blasphemy laws, including the lynching of Sri Lankan national Priyantha Kumara in Sialkot in December 2021.
Kumara was among those featured on a commemorative poster picturing Bishop Joseph released at the memorial seminar in Lahore.
According to Wajahat Masood, the Muslim chairperson of the CSJ, the bishop’s suicide was the highest form of civil protest.
“Much water has flowed since that fateful evening and the blasphemy laws and their shenanigans are as strong as ever. More so, new forms of faith-based injustice have emerged including mob lynching, forced conversions, displacement, extortion, desecration of places of worship and kidnapping under the garb of marriage. The state remains insensitive and society largely is silent,” he said.
“We have lost many decades in pursuit of this noble cause for equal citizenship. Staying true to this vow may perhaps be the best tribute to the sacrifices of the nation’s best sons like Bishop John Joseph and hundreds of victims’ blasphemy laws and other forms of religious discrimination.”
In Faisalabad, Bishop Indrias Rehmat held a memorial service for his predecessor at the Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral and later joined activists of the Minorities Alliance Pakistan (MAP) in placing floral wreaths on the grave of Bishop Joseph buried in the cathedral compound.
MAP chairman Akmal Bhatti compared the late bishop’s act to hara kiri — the ritual suicide committed by Japanese samurai.
“We call it martyrdom. It was his way of highlighting the atrocities committed in the name of blasphemy. He wanted to bring the world’s attention to this bloodshed in the name of religion. People can disagree on his way of handling the desperation,” he told UCA News.
“His sacrifice couldn’t bear fruit because the rulers and state continue guardianship of extremism. Today every person belonging to a religious minority feels insecure. We can’t openly express ourselves or our faith. However, such tragedies motivate us to continue fighting for the oppressed and the vulnerable.”
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