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Remembering a Pakistani bishop who sacrificed himself for others

Allowing Bishop John Joseph's memory to fade away will be a mindless act that negates faith, hope, and charity
Archbishop Sebastian Shaw of Lahore and others at a memorial seminar to honor Bishop John Joseph who killed himself in protest against Pakistan's controversial blasphemy law, in Lahore on May 3, 2023.

Archbishop Sebastian Shaw of Lahore and others at a memorial seminar to honor Bishop John Joseph who killed himself in protest against Pakistan's controversial blasphemy law, in Lahore on May 3, 2023. (Photo: Kamran Chaudhry)

Published: May 08, 2024 10:57 AM GMT
Updated: May 15, 2024 06:44 AM GMT

Twenty-six years ago a Catholic bishop shot and killed himself outside a court in Pakistan to draw attention to injustices and discrimination Christians suffer in the Muslim-majority nation.

The blood that Bishop John Joseph spilled on May 6, 1998, in front of the sessions court in Sahiwal, continues to symbolize a cry for justice against the country's notorious blasphemy law, which socially discriminates and economically exploits Christians in Pakistan.

The desperate act shook the world, particularly Christian churches, into taking note of the unbending stories of resilience among minorities in Pakistan, particularly Christians subjected to recurring arson attacks, engineered riots, and sustained discrimination in the mainstream social psyche.

With such stories turning bloodier and darker, one question stands out: Was Bishop John Joseph’s sacrifice worth it?

Bishop John Joseph, born and raised in Faisalabad, served his diocese as its auxiliary bishop before taking over as bishop and experiencing the discrimination and misuse of the blasphemy law against his people firsthand.

Bishop John Joseph decided to speak out instead of being intimidated and oppressed by injustice like most of his peers and colleagues. He worked to strengthen his people to do the same through peaceful protests and political negotiation.

What triggered the 66-year-old bishop’s ultimate sacrifice was the case of Ayub Masih, whom the Sahiwal court had sentenced to death for blasphemy against Islam.

The then 26-year-old Ayub Masih was arrested in 1996 for allegedly telling his Muslim neighbor to read Salman Rushdie’s perceived blasphemous novel, "The Satanic Verses." He was also accused of saying that Christianity was the “right” religion.

Pakistan’s Supreme Court acquitted Ayub of all charges and released him in 2002, four years after the bishop's sacrifice.

However, more than a quarter of a century later, Pakistan's contentious blasphemy law remains and says that anyone “who defiles the name of the Prophet Muhammad, either directly or indirectly, can be punished by death or life imprisonment, and may also be fined.”

The law itself may look innocuous. But it has become dangerous in a country where 40 percent of its 230 million people cannot read and where a majority love to follow their religion’s Sharia diktat that calls for a blasphemer to be killed.

From independence in 1947 up until 2021, at least 89 people, some of them Christians, were killed without judicial process on Pakistan's streets after being accused of blasphemy. As of 2021, at least 80 people were in jail, with half of them facing the death penalty, according to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Christians are often falsely accused of blasphemy to win a petty quarrel between neighbors, to appropriate a Christian’s property, or to push a Christian family or an entire community out of an area.

In a country where Christians are viewed as descendants of lower-caste Dalit people, the social psyche in Pakistan tolerates abuses against them. With fanatic groups spreading hate against non-Islamic religions, Christians have become politically discriminated against, socially oppressed, and violently attacked in the name of religion.

Bishop John Joseph wanted the world to see this extreme oppression and for his country and international agencies to work to change it. But 25 years after he made himself a sacrificial lamb, the blemishes on the nation continue with almost no one available to carry on the apostolate.

Catholic traditions and teachings do not accept suicide for whatever reason because it shows an ultimate lack of respect for life and negates the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity.

However, Bishop John Joseph’s death should be viewed differently and not as an act of suicide committed out of hopelessness, depression, or to escape a catastrophe in life. He expressed hope that his friend would be saved from death and that the world may act to change an unjust system and save many more people.

He chose death with hope and charity in a similar way, at least in some respects, as did St. Maximilian Colbe in the Auschwitz concentration camp.  The Polish priest volunteered to die in place of fellow prisoner Franciszek Gajowniczek when he heard the prisoner crying out: "My wife! My children!"
The bishop, before shooting himself, reportedly sent a letter to the mass circulation Dawn newspaper calling on Christians and Muslims to act together to get Ayub’s death sentence revoked.

“Dedicated persons do not count the cost of the sacrifices they offer… I shall count myself extremely fortunate in this mission of breaking the barriers. Our Lord accepts the sacrifice of my blood for the benefit of his people.” These were his last words.

It is time Pakistan's Christian hierarchy sheds its inhibitions about Bishop John Joseph’s suicide and takes up his cause with courage and conviction. Christians in Pakistan and elsewhere should proudly learn from this saintly bishop’s conviction and determination, and the sacrifice he made for his people.

The international community needs to do more to bring pressure to bear on Pakistan to end these rights violations in Pakistan, which continue unabated in the name of religion and caste.

Allowing Bishop John Joseph's memory to fade away will be a mindless act that negates faith, hope, and charity.

*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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1 Comments on this Story
This is the height of absurdity. This was a straightforward suicide. Had he been a layman he would have been denied a Christian burial. The writer also admits that this foolish act has had no impact whatsoever on the misuse of blasphemy laws in Pakistan. Please don't glorify such stupid acts.
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