Sunday, September 13, 2009

In the Name of Blasphemy, Pakistani Christians Under Frequent Attack - 15

Bishop John Joseph (1932 - 1998):
A Human Rights Martyr of Pakistan (Contd.)

Bishop John Joseph is articulating his point
in a speech in Pakistan

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The Blasphemy Case Against Ayub Masih: A Critical Test for Bishop John Joseph

Ayub Masih (25) of Arifabad (also known as Arifwala) Village in Sahiwal District was a member of the Catholic community under the jurisdiction of Bishop John Joseph of Faisalabad Diocese. He was a bricklayer in Karachi, where he was also studying at the Bible College.

In August, 1996, he returned to his village to visit his family which was facing trouble from a Muslim landlord who wanted to grab all residential plots of the Christians. His father and brothers refused to give up the land rights to their properties. One day Ayub and one of his brothers were beaten in their family house by several dozen Muslims. They dragged both of them to the local police station. They were not arrested that day.

On October 14, 1996, Ayub was arrested for blasphemy against Prophet Mohammad -- a crime punishable by death in Pakistan -- following a complaint made by the landlord Muhammad Akram. His complaint was that Ayub Masih urged Muhammad Akram and his family to know the truth of Islam by reading Salman Rushdie's book Satanic Verses and he also told them to convert to Christianity. It is to be noted carefully that the case against Ayub relied solely on verbal testimony of the complainant. No other evidence was sought or submitted. The police never investigated the veracity of the alleged incident. After his arrest, Ayub's family and other 13 Christian families fled the village and their properties have been grabbed illegally by the usurpers.

The Sessions Court of Sahiwal, under pressure from Muslim extremists, on April 27, 1998, sentenced Ayub Masih to death and imposed a fine of 100,000 rupees (about US$ 1,667).

Bishop Kills Himself As a Deafening Protest Against Pakistan's Infamous Blasphemy Laws

The death sentence of Ayub Masih was the fourth one given against Christians of Pakistan since early 1990's. Ayub's unjust death penalty represented the persecution Christians were facing in that country.

Bishop John Joseph, who was actively fighting for the rights of the minority communities, especially Christians, of Pakistan, saw that all efforts were not bearing expected results. Persecution of the minorities was increasing day by day. He wanted to do something drastic so that the government of Pakistan is forced to do something concrete regarding the blasphemy laws so that the minorities might enjoy their appropriate freedom and safety.

It was May 6, 1998. In late afternoon, Bishop John Joseph attended a prayer service for the victims of Pakistan's blasphemy laws -- in particular, for Ayub Masih who was condemned to death. Later, at the instruction of Bishop John Joseph, the vehicle driver drove the bishop and a fellow priest, Father Yaqoob Farooq, several hundred kilometers to the the premises of the Sessions Court in Sahiwal. It was about 9:00 in the evening. At one point, Bishop prayed with the priest and driver near the corridor of the Sessions Court and told them to leave him alone for some time. Upon hearing the sound of a gunshot, the priest and driver rush to the spot where they left the bishop. They then find the bishop lying dead on the ground with a revolver nearby. It was exactly the same place where, on November 6, 1997, the complainant Muhammad Akram shot and wounded Ayub Masih just as he was coming out after the court hearing. It was the same Sessions Court that, on April 27, 1998, gave the unjust death penalty verdict against Ayub Masih.

The news of this sentence was a hard one for Bishop John Joseph. He desperately searched for lawyers and others to appeal the death penalty of Ayub Masih in the higher court. There was none to come forward for fear of their lives in the hands of the Muslim extremists. He looked back to the past and reflected on the sad events that unfolded due to the use and abuse of the blasphemy laws in Pakistan.

Ultimately, the bishop sacrificed his own life for the greater good of the minority communities in Pakistan.

Bishop's Death Was a Planned One

For quite some time, Bishop John Joseph hinted at sacrificing his life if the abuses of the blasphemy laws of Pakistan continue.

At the funeral of Manzoor Masih in April, 1994, Bishop John Joseph had promised to give up his own life before he allowed anyone else to be sacrificed for the infamous blasphemy laws (p.163 of The Christians of Pakistan: The Passion of Bishop John Joseph by Linda S. Walbridge, London: RouteledgeCurzon, 2003). According to Father Bonnie Mendes, a close associate of Bishop John Jospeh in Faisalabad, the exact words of the bishop at this funeral were: "Manzoor, we are sorry this happened to you. If anybody's blood was needed, I should have been the first. I shall shed my blood but will not allow the blood of my people to spill in this country." Manzoor Masih along with Salamat Masih and Rehmat Masih were arrested on blasphemy charge of writing derogatory remarks on Prophet Mohammad on a mosque wall at Ratta Dhotran of Gujranwala District. On April 4, 1994, Manzoor Masih was killed by an assailant and two other defendants were injured in front of the court house in Lahore.

The other hint of sacrificing his life was in the public address he had prepared and faxed to a seminar to be held in Rome in conjunction with the Synod of Bishops for Asia in March of 1998. Father Bonnie Mendes quotes these two last paragraphs of his speech: "I shall count myself fortunate if in this mission of breaking the barriers, Our Lord accepts the sacrifice of my blood for the benefit of his people. As St 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 the challenge and follow him, carrying this cross on our shoulder? Are we ready to drink the cup of suffering to the bitter end as Jesus did? Each one of us has to formulate his or her personal response. May the crucified and risen Lord give us the courage to do so. Amen." (from:

There was another hint of sacrificing life in his letter to the Dawn, the daily newspaper from Karachi. In the letter, published one day before his death, Bishop John Joseph urged fellow Bishops, NGOs, parliamentarians, Muslims, Christians, Hindus and all sections of the society to struggle for the repeal of the Section 295B and 295C of the Pakistan Penal Code. He also added: " we must act strongly and in unity, Christians and Muslims, in order not only, to get this death sentence suspended but to get 295B and C repealed without worrying about the sacrifices we shall have to offer, dedicated persons do not count the cost."

Immediate Reactions to His Death

The unexpected death of Bishop John Joseph was a bombshell to all. The news spread like a wildfire both within and outside Pakistan. Messages of condolence began to pour in from everywhere. Christians and non-Christians alike condoled his death and appreciated his untiring and dedicated work in the field of human rights. Although his death was a suicide, which is usually looked down upon, most people took his death as a self-sacrifice for a greater cause. His spirit lighted the hearts of many.

On May 11, 1998, about 10,000 Christians -- both Catholics and non-Catholics -- mourned the death of their dear bishop John Joseph and participated in the burial of his body on the grounds of Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral in Faisalabad. At the time of the burial, Muslim extremists attacked and set fire on Christian homes and shops in a neighborhood of the cathedral. These Muslims shouted slogans in favour of blasphemy laws. They even threatened to bring down the government if concessions were made to the Christians.

In response, Christians attacked policemen for not responding fast enough to counter the Muslim rampage. The police used teargas to disperse the crowd and arrested 16 Muslim militants and five rowdy Christians.

On the day of Bishop's burial, about 1,500 Christians marched through Karachi and set fire to shops and vehicles. They raised slogans against the blasphemy laws that have been wrecking havoc in Pakistan.

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