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Pakistani Bishop John Joseph’s sacrifice should not be forgotten

He was a good shepherd who did not just smell the sheep but gave his life for them
Bishop John Joseph (center, in glasses) with Christian protesters in Faisalabad in 1992

Bishop John Joseph (center, in glasses) with Christian protesters in Faisalabad in 1992. (Photo supplied)

Published: May 03, 2023 11:39 AM GMT
Updated: June 07, 2023 06:19 AM GMT

Twenty-five years ago, on May 6, Pakistani Bishop John Joseph of Faisalabad shot himself dead inside a courtroom and became a modern-day martyr to protest the exploitation of the nation’s draconian blasphemy law against Christians.

Not much has changed since then in terms of abuse of the blasphemy law that takes a toll frequently on religious minorities as well as liberal Muslims in the country.

It seems the self-sacrifice of the bishop has not borne any fruit as the yoke of blasphemy still overburdens Pakistan’s Christians and non-Christians alike day after day. That does not mean we should forget him and his great sacrifice for the cause.

Pakistan’s Penal Code 295 C forbids insulting Islam and the Prophet Muhammad, either by written or spoken word or by visible representation. The majority of victims of the blasphemy law are innocent people who are accused of defaming Islam and the Prophet. Reports from Media and rights groups show that in most cases, blasphemy accusations stem from personal enmity or religious hatred.

The highest punishment for blasphemy is the death sentence and innocent people have been convicted on fabricated charges. Though none have been executed for blasphemy, many languish in jails, both convicted and awaiting trial.

Bishop John stood up for justice and took the side of the people victimized by the blasphemy law. His life and work demonstrated his unwavering love to uphold the human rights of common people while most leaders of organized religions looked away. Though his official residence was the Bishop’s House, he spent most of his time with the poor in their shanty towns.

"In many ways, Bishop John’s life and work resembled the life of Jesus Christ"

He spent days in the streets and markets helping poor people struggle for their rights, unlike other religious leaders who remain content with preaching and enjoying the comforts of their pompous lifestyle.

Bishop John used the Church as a platform for the welfare of the poor. This gave a new meaning to leadership in the Pakistani Church which integrated authority and service. He did not hunker for honor and power but dedicated his life to serving his people. Church leaders today have so much to learn from him.

In many ways, Bishop John’s life and work resembled the life of Jesus Christ who loved the poor and the oppressed and died for them. He considered Jesus his role model and just like Archbishop Oscar Romero (now a saint) he bore witness as a great disciple of Jesus. His love for the poor and his unrelenting efforts for social justice make him the Oscar Romero of Pakistan.

Bishop John’s greatest legacy is he was able to see God in the poor unlike many Church leaders today who are happy to side with the rich and the powerful.

So, after 25 years, people still remember him as a savior and lover of humanity because he lived and died for the poor, powerless, and voiceless. He was a good shepherd who did not only smell the sheep but gave his life for them.

There is not much enthusiasm in the Church hierarchy in Pakistan to live and promote the legacy of Bishop John, which is disappointing.

All we can hope is the present and next generation of Christians do not forget about him and make their best efforts to make him recognized as a martyr and a saint.

It is important for the Vatican to honor Bishop John as his sacrifice does not only put a spotlight on the plight of minorities and the poor in Pakistan but also across the world. By honoring him the Church can recognize the struggle of the downtrodden and oppressed communities against social injustices globally.

* Naeem Harry, a Pakistan-born Christian who migrated to the U.S., lives in New Jersey. He writes about issues affecting religious minorities in Pakistan. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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