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FUNDAMENTALIST CHALLENGE OUTLINED BY BISHOP BEFORE PROTEST SUICIDE

Updated: May 07, 1998 05:00 PM GMT
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On May 6, barely a week after he was to present the following paper on religious fundamentalism, Bishop John Joseph of Faisalabad shot and killed himself in an apparent protest against such fundamentalism in Pakistan.

Before going to the courthouse in front of which he died, he told a prayer meeting for victims of a blasphemy law under which Pakistani Christians have been sentenced to death: "We have to do something big to undo the law" and "We have no way except to shed our blood and that time has come to make sacrifice."

Bishop Joseph sent this paper for an April 28 symposium in Rome that was one in a series on Asian Church concerns sponsored by SEDOS (Servizio di Documentazione e Studi, center for documentation and studies) held concurrent with the ongoing Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for Asia.

Following is the complete text sent by the late bishop, recognized nationally and internationally as a leading figure in the struggle for minority rights by the Christian community in Pakistan:

The Challenges of Religious Fundamentalism and Violence to Social Harmony

Introduction

Let me, first of all, thank Reverend Father Michael T. Seigel, SVD, for inviting me to this international forum of SEDOS where so many religious superiors are going to participate. Ever since I got this invitation, I have been looking forward to this seminar, with great eagerness. I thought now the message of Jesus that all be one, that there be universal harmony, will reach every corner of the world, through the participants of this gathering, arranged by SEDOS, Rome. But the circumstances have robbed me of this joy. A Christian, Anwar Masih, accused of blasphemy was released by a court, but a Muslim terrorist group, Sipah-e-Sahaba, has announced that they will kill him (they had originally brought the charges against him). I have to hide him, till we find a safe place, somewhere in the world, for him and for his wife and children (he is about 35 years old).

Yesterday (April 27) Ayub Masih (Masih indicates that a person is a Christian, it is not a family name) was condemned to "hang by the neck till dead" and fined one hundred thousand rupees, just because in a discussion with a Muslim "friend" he is supposed to have said, "If you read Salman Rushdie´s book ("Satanic Verses"), you will come to know the true face of Islam and its prophet"!!

This is religious fundamentalism at its extreme. Therefore, I am very grateful to SEDOS for tackling this issue which is extremely important for humanity in our times. No matter where we live today in the world, we are affected and are concerned with the activities of the fundamentalists. People are shocked when they read about the crimes of such people, who are trained and brainwashed in such a way that it is very easy for them to kill. They are not afraid of being killed either. In order to create terror and fear among people, they freely make use of violence. They go to any extremes.

Main Characteristics of the Religious Fundamentalists:

1. Total rejection of rationality; therefore, the fundamentalists try to popularize their beliefs after mobilizing the emotions of people.

2. Not believing in human reason, they rely on the divine power to lead humanity on the right path.

3. They are not ready to have any compromise about their beliefs.

4. As they regard themselves true, rightly guided followers of religion, they treat all others as their enemy.

5. They are ready to sacrifice their lives for the sake of their beliefs. Similarly they are also ready to kill their religious opponents as misguided people.

6. Once they monopolize the truthfulness and declare all others as sinners, they lose all respect for democratic institutions, human rights, and human values and fanatically make attempts to thrust their religious views on others even by adopting violent methods.

According to Ms. Asma Jahangir, a prominent civil rights attorney, the Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, "Islamic fundamentalists are nothing more than ruthless, violent power mongers. They know that there is a fear of modernization here among many devout people, a fear of secularism ... and they exploit that sentiment to add to their ranks" (Sennott, Charles M., "Pakistanis underclass targets ...," Boston Sunday Globe, p.21).

As in many other Muslim countries, in Pakistan too this is the most feared form of terrorism. In January this year, a report prepared by the special branch of the police sent out a chilling warning to the government. The report focused on the activities of a number of extremist religious groups who espouse virulently sectarian views. These organizations can turn into the biggest crime mafias that Pakistan has ever known. With criminal elements and hidden patrons backing these groups, fears are rising that their unchecked growth could well plunge Pakistan into a bout of fratricidal violence on a massive scale.

To this police report, I would add that this is already happening in Pakistan: the unchecked growth of religious terrorism. The government is afraid of them or has ulterior motives for not checking them. One reason, for example, for government´s fear to act is their blind compulsion to stay in power, they are very vulnerable to blackmail from their supporters. The government closes its eyes to schools where male children are taken from age five and are trained in religious hatred and in handling weapons. These little children roam about with turbans tied tightly round their heads, a symbol that they will never progress intellectually. In some of these schools the children are kept in iron chains. The first fruits of these terrorists´ training centres are visible and evident. A Christian teacher, Nemat Ahmar, was killed brutally with a knife after being accused of blasphemy by a 24-year-old student. Another Christian, Gul Masih, who got the death sentence for blasphemy, was accused by a 25-year-old student. A bearded and turbaned 24-year-old student entered our church on 3 April 1996, during Good Friday Services, and shouted, "The Bible is not a Holy Book. Christ is not a prophet."

The general public is afraid to react because if someone talks or acts against them, the punishment from the religious terrorists comes fast and it is terrible. Sometimes the whole family is brutally slaughtered. It creates terror. Even we priests and religious are cowed down and prefer to close our eyes hoping that the horror will pass away.

The fundamentalists want that they should return to the glorious past and to the teaching of Islam. They make a call to other Muslims for this cause. And very often their call is responded to very positively. This leads to a significant religious activism. However, it is also a fact that because of their call and claims for teaching true Islam there come divisions among themselves. Different groups make claims for their truthfulness and it results in battle lines among themselves within the House of Islam. A lot of energy is spent on these domestic duels. This also affects politics.

Islam recognizes politics as a legitimate field of human endeavour. For Muslims state and religion go together and they cannot separate it. Islam lays down its own rules for the political game.

For Islam, the twentieth century began with the hope of secularism; it ends with the fear of fundamentalism. In 1924 Kamal Ataturk abolished the Shari (Islamic law) courts and secularized the then strongest Muslim empire on the globe, the Ottoman, Turkey. In 1979 Ayatollah Khomeni led the Iranian revolution to triumph, inspiring a variety of fundamentalist trends fermenting in the Muslim world. The world of Islam looks back nostalgically at the Middle Ages, when its religion and culture seemed like identical twins and the Christian West studied at its feet. It senses with frustration that Western ideals of nationalism, socialism or capitalism, introduced into modern Muslim societies, have offered no true solutions to the manifold problems Islam faces in the technological world. With the slogans "Islam is the solution" and "Allah is the answer" the fundamentalists pin their hopes on the utopia of a return to an idealized early Muslim community.

Another factor which helped the fundamentalist parties to increase their influence is the repeated defeat of the Muslims at the hands of their adversaries, especially the defeat of Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria by Israel, the defeat of Pakistan by India and the independence of Bangladesh, and the recent defeat of Iraq in the Gulf war.

These defeats and humiliations created a deep sense of helplessness and passivity among Muslims. The West emerged as the bitter enemy of the Muslim world, which consequently encouraged the fundamentalist parties to reject everything from the West and present Islam as the only alternative to save them from disaster. The Muslim fundamentalist parties feel that only by following the Islamic teachings could the Muslims of the world be united to take revenge from the West and other enemies.

The uneducated crowd of poor people sympathize with those religious parties who arouse their sentiments on religious issues. In Pakistan the Anjuman Sipa-e-Sahaba and the Majlis-i-Khatm-i-Nabuwwat are such parties who occasionally raise some religious issues and make them a question of life and death. Especially in the sectarian conflicts, they find ample grounds to create religious strife. They have created a lot of trouble and tension in Pakistan. Several armed clashes have taken place and hundreds of people have been killed in such clashes. There are some militant groups in Pakistan that throw bombs in mosques, schools, railway stations, bus stops, shopping centres and other public places. This creates a sense of terror among the people. Here sometimes one Muslim sect will accuse the other, e.g. Shias versus Sunnis. At times when one incident takes place in one city, tension grows in another and a counterattack is made in the other city.

Iran has played an important role in the development of Islamic fundamentalism. Many African Governments, for example, are scared of Iran and they feel Iran is helping the fundamentalists in their countries. In a speech during the opening ceremony of a seminar in Tehran, Iran, on development and cooperation in Africa, the Iranian Parliamentary Speaker, Ali Akbar Netegh Nouri very openly said that his country Iran will focus its efforts on reviving Islam in Africa. "Revitalizing Islam should be one of the most important objectives of Iran´s international policies." He said, "We have to help Africa regain its identity." Nouri was quoted by the Iranian "Keyhan" newspaper as telling this in the two-day seminar convened to study political, economic and cultural relations between Iran and African countries.

On March 27, 1993, Algeria broke diplomatic relations with Iran, accusing it of interference and support for terrorists. At the same time Algeria recalled its ambassador from Sudan, accusing both countries of "interference in the internal affairs of Algeria" and saying both had "declared support for terrorism."

Victims of Fundamentalism

The first victims of the fundamentalist parties are the religious minorities. They direct their full wrath on these minorities and depict them as dangerous to society and country. For example, Christians and Ahmadis (a Muslim sect that does not believe in the finality of Prophet Mohammad) in Pakistan. In Iran, after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Bahais were brutally persecuted and excluded from all government jobs. In Egypt, the Coptics are the victims.

The second victims are women. (The fundamentalist groups) believe women are inferior to men, the root of evil, weak and stupid, and without any understanding of worldly affairs.

The third victims are those people who have secular, liberal, and enlightened outlook, especially intellectuals and human rights activists.

(The fundamentalist groups) are against the West and watch carefully their progress and activities. Whenever possible they will do acts of terrorism to get attention from the world media. For them every one in the Western countries is an enemy of Islam so they support all sorts of violent or non- violent activities to fight against their enemies who are non-Muslims and westernized Muslims, as well.

To popularize their policies they use the method of "tabligh," that is, preaching. Their second method is violence. It is their belief that those who oppose them are the enemies of God. First they terrorize them to silence them; in the second stage they eliminate them, which also serve as a warning to others.

Those individuals who adopt secular ideas are regarded by them as "murtad," apostates, and thus punishable by death. To legitimize this, a "fatwa" (religious judgment) is issued in this regard which makes it obligatory on every Muslim to kill the said person. In Iran, during the Shah regime, a liberal advocate Khusrau was killed when the religious leaders sanctioned his murder. Similarly, Imam Khomeini issued a fatwa to kill Salman Rushdie.

In Pakistan very often fatwas are issued against Christians. This happened in the case of Salamat Masih, a teenager, Manzoor Masih and Rehmat Masih, farmers in Gujranwala; Gul Masih, a small business owner in Sargodha; and Nemat Ahmer, a school teacher in Faisalabad. Nemat Ahmer was killed and so was Manzoor Masih. Salamat Masih, Gul Masih and Rehmat Masih were given death sentences by sessions courts but later freed by the High Court of Lahore. Very often Islamic laws, particularly blasphemy laws, are used against others, in particular against Christians, to settle personal scores and prejudices. This creates a sense of fear among the Christians.

Under the fundamentalist influence, publication of religious books increases and secular literature rapidly decreases. It also greatly affects the music, painting, sculpture, and dancing, and, also as a whole, the society loses its glamour, and violence and dullness reign supreme. This is what has happened for example in Pakistan.

For South African Archbishop (Desmond) Tutu, "the real issue at hand is taking Islamic fundamentalism as a challenge and the most effective way to counter it is by deepening people´s faith." ("Islam is Africa," World Mission, January 1993, pp. 28-29).

Our Response to This Challenge

In the world today, the Church will be as relevant and vibrant as the response we give to this basic issue of religious fundamentalism and violence. Sorry to say that sometimes we bishops and other church leaders leave the wounded and dying to their own lot, and proceed to fulfill our "religious" duties as the priest and the Levite in the episode of the Good Samaritan. We close our eyes and think that the blood thirsty cat of religious violence will go away by itself. No, each one of us has to get involved and play our role:

1. Get involved:

Each one of us has this obligation. Each Christian, be he a simple layman or a high ranking cardinal, is told by Lord Jesus not to pass by a wounded (physically, morally, psychologically, socially or financially) person. Get involved even if it may be dangerous. How often has Lord Jesus told us not to be afraid? Cowards, according to the Sacred Scriptures, shall not enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Revelation 21:8).

After arrest warrants were issued for me by the Islamabad Police, for leading a rally three years ago, one of my ecclesiastical big brothers told me that this happened due to my own fault. He said that we must be grateful for the liberty that we enjoy in Pakistan. ... Look at some of the other Muslim countries like Algeria, Sudan, Egypt etc. ... The fundamentalistic extremists are very strong and well organised internationally. ... We cannot challenge them. ... It is too dangerous. ... The Christian minority in Pakistan is too small and too weak. I said in answer, "I may be very weak, but united in the name of our Lord Jesus, we are very strong." I also said, "We live in the flesh, of course, but the muscles that we fight with are not flesh. Our war is not fought with weapons of flesh, yet they are strong enough, in God´s cause, to demolish fortresses" (2 Corinthians 10:3, 4). To this his answer (in the presence of five persons) was, "Oh, that is only in theory."

2. Get organised:

A. Our answer to violence must be interdenominational and Interreligious. Although we Catholics are a majority among the Christians in Pakistan, we would never dream of holding a rally or organising a protest without the official and full participation of the other Christian denominations in Pakistan. The representatives of all the denominations plan together, decide together and act together. It is beautiful to see the majors and brigadiers of the Salvation Army marching along in uniforms and standing guard when we are lying down on the ground in a hunger strike. It was wonderful to hear what a Protestant pastor said after my arrest warrants were issued, "Bishop if you are in prison, part of us will be in prison too, because all of us together form the body of Christ."

There are many Muslims who are convinced that each human being must contribute personally towards combating and eradicating violence and terrorism. These are individual Muslims like lawyers, professors, doctors and some journalists. We must welcome them with full confidence. Then there are Muslim human rights groups. We must approach them and work in close cooperation with them. This is one of the secrets of the success that we have had in our struggle so far.

B. We must not forget any section of the society. The local leaders have called on the head men, the women and the youth. Before starting a major action against an injustice, we consult not only the church leaders but also the lay people with full seriousness.

C. Organisation must be not only at local, regional and national levels, but it must have strong links with international agencies which are committed to fight against all kinds of violence. We Christians of Pakistan have close ties with Amnesty International, British Broadcasting Corporation in London, Media Watch in New York, Human Rights Commission Canada, Australia, Switzerland, Holland, Germany, Missio and Misereor (German Catholic funding agencies), Christian Solidarity-Austria and now SEDOS in Rome. The Third World governments may not listen to the cries of their citizens, but they are extremely sensitive to the opinion of the First World countries.

On 5 April 1994, four Christians accused of blasphemy were shot at. One of them was killed on the spot, the others were critically wounded, a boy of 12 years among them. The Catholic and Protestant bishops wanted time from the president or the prime minister of Pakistan, but neither of them had time for us. Then we held a huge procession of clergy, laity, women and youth. We were fired at, several times, but we went through the streets of Faisalabad. BBC London took it up, and only then the president of Pakistan found time for us. The foreign embassies provide tremendous help, sometimes openly but mostly in a quiet way.

3. Our response must be absolutely non-violent:

If even one stone is thrown from our procession against a window, we are not Christians and we lose every right to demonstrate against violence.

Abuses are publicly hurled at us (by name) in the public get-togethers of the fundamentalists. Our people come to tell us. We calm them down by telling them that these abuses that we get while working for peace and basic human rights are like gold medals for us. Jesus said, "Blessed are you, if you are reviled for my name´s sake." Under no circumstances do we permit retaliation or revenge.

The evening before a procession or a rally is to be held, we gather all the organisers of the rally and, in a Bible service, we all promise to Lord Jesus Christ that we ourselves will remain peaceful and keep others in the rally also peaceful. This promise in the Church is important for the youth, who have a tendency to retaliate. This tendency must be entirely subdued through motivation, long training and Christian commitment. We take photographs of the ceremony where, with hands raised up, the organisers promise to remain orderly themselves and see to the discipline of the entire rally, in order to permanently remind ourselves of this most important promise.

4. Coordination and cooperation with different NGOs:

The NGOs (non-governmental organisations) can be very helpful to our apostolate for peace, especially those which work for the rights of children, women, bonded labourers, brick kiln workers, workers for the landlords, etc.; also the groups which are working against police torture, custodial death and imprisoning without any charge or process.

Conclusion

To begin concluding this paper, I quote the strong and encouraging words of the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II. I am a great admirer of the courage of the pontiff with which he announces the true doctrine of the Church and the real message of Jesus Christ, our Saviour. He is not afraid what the Third World nations will think about the social teachings of the Catholic Church. No president in the world has the guts to visit the Holy Father in uniform! The dictators of this world are scared of this man of peace and equality.

If we the Church leaders and lay leaders were even half as courageous as the Holy Father, the salvation of the Saviour would reach many more people of the world today. In his 1985 message of peace, addressed to the youth but equally valid for each one of us, the Holy Father writes:

"The appeal I want to address to you, young men and women of today, is this: ´Do not be afraid!´ When I look at you, I feel great gratitude and hope. ... The future of peace lies in your hands. To construct history, as you can and must, you must free history from the false paths it is pursuing. To do this, you must be people with a deep trust in man and a deep trust in the grandeur of the human vocation -- a vocation to be pursued with respect for truth and for dignity and the inviolable rights of the human person. ... In this situation, some of you may be tempted to take flight from responsibility" (Message for the World Day of Peace, 1 January 1985, pp. 8-9).

At the end, I appeal to all my brothers and sisters in Christ: Please, let us leave our places and positions of safety and comfort and go to the people. Recently we, as a Christian community in Pakistan, had to fight an unjust law being introduced against the minorities. I, as a bishop of the Catholic, universal Church, with many Christians, in many cities, all over Pakistan, lay down on a footpath in hunger strike in front of the government offices in Faisalabad -- and what is one of the most beautiful events of our national history happened then: almost all the bishops of Pakistan came and sat with us for a few hours on that footpath to show their solidarity, the Catholic bishops in white cassocks and Protestant bishops in violet cassocks. The press was impressed and the government was awed and, naturally, this solidarity won the day. The government announced that they would not introduce that law (to add a religion column in the national identity card, which would make religious discrimination not only actual but official, and the minorities second-class citizens). The government´s announcement came on Christmas, 1992. Jesus, our Saviour, broke the wall of enmity and discrimination by offering his own body (Ephesians 2:13-17). He is our Peace, by his crucifixion, death and resurrection, he accomplished the mission he came for, "That all may be one" (universal "harmony") (John 17:21).

I shall count myself extremely fortunate if in this mission of breaking the barriers, Our Lord accepts the sacrifice of my blood for the benefit of his people. As Saint Paul wrote, "It makes me happy to suffer for you, as I am suffering now, and in my own body to do what I can to make up all that has still to be undergone by Christ for the sake of his body, the Church" (Colossians 1: 24).

This is the only effective response to the ever growing phenomena of violence around us. Are we ready to take up this challenge and follow him, carrying this cross on our own shoulders (Matthew 16:24)? Are we ready to drink the cup of suffering to the bitter end, as Jesus did (Matthew 20:22)? Each one of us has to formulate his or her own personal response. May the crucified and the risen Lord give us the courage to do so. Amen.

END

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