Sunday, September 13, 2009

In the Name of Blasphemy, Pakistani Christians Under Frequent Attack - 16

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

Bishop John Joseph of Faisalabad, Pakistan, before his death
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Why Is He Called a 'Martyr'?

Although the Catholic Church does not condone suicide, yet common Catholics and other Christians in Pakistan call the late Bishop John Joseph a 'martyr.'

Father Bonnie Mendes, a close associate of the bishop in Faisalabad, said that his death is never described as a "suicide" -- an act condemned by the Catholic Church -- but as a "sacrifice on behalf of his people." He also said: "The very night he made his sacrifice, people sent out messages, first in the city of Sahiwal, later by telephones all over the country. At once there were demonstrations, processions, rallies and the unanimous slogan, 'Bishop John Joseph the martyr.' For the people, he is no less than that."

Bishop John Joseph can be called a martyr, because:

  • Common people, especially Christians, know how much he loved them, empathized with them and cared for their welfare. They know how sincere he was in trying to help them in most difficult and adverse situations.
  • He sacrificed his life to save more lives in future.
  • His suicidal death was not a self-defeating one, but one to defeat a greater force of evil so that greater good comes for the minority communities in Pakistan.
  • Like Jesus Christ, he took upon himself the pains and sufferings of the people and sacrificed his life for their deliverance.
  • Like Moses of the Old Testament of the Bible, he tried his best to liberate his people from the oppression of the modern pharaohs (persecutors and usurpers).
  • Like Jesus he spoke and fought for the human rights. He became a voice of the voiceless people.
  • He only chose this method of dying only when all the avenues were exhausted, only when the minorities -- including Christians -- were being persecuted in greater numbers in the name of blasphemy laws.
  • He chose to die like a martyr to make a dent on the juggernaut -- the selfish and self-serving system of governing in Pakistan.
  • People consider him having heroic virtues, like: a) tremendous love for his people; b) sacrificial leadership; c) integrity in his words and deeds; d) courage to face injustices; e) hard work for the development of the poor and marginalized; f) patriotism; g) loyalty to the Gospel values, and h) approachability.
An Awami (People's) Bishop

Common people called Bishop John Joseph an awami bishop -- people's bishop. They gave him this dear epithet because they felt very close to him. He was a person who could be counted upon at their emergencies and sufferings.

Bishop John Joseph was quick to stand by their side -- listening to them, providing them encouragement, hope and support. He was the true neighbour described in the Gospel of the Bible.

Bishop John Joseph kept every Monday and Tuesday designated for meeting his people, who were mostly poor asnd marginalized. Christians from town slums and villages would be allowed to meet him on these days without making any pre-appointment and unload their pains and voice their grievances against their unjust employers, landlords and government officials who were to serve the people.

He mediated disputes and helped them with financial assistance in different ways. He also helped them get their relatives released from jails or make appeals to higher courts to reconsider the unjust blasphemy cases. (pp. 163-174 of The Christians of Pakistan: The Passion of Bishop John Joseph by Linda S. Walbridge (London: RouteledgeCurzon, 2003).

Not Without a Controversy

Bishop John Joseph was not without a controversy -- nepotism, giving more time and money to the poor and marginalized than others and the like. Whereas most other Bishops and many priests in Pakistan were, as typical, of pietistic, patronizing and hands-off type, Bishop John Joseph was of participatory and "go-getter" type. He was an "activist bishop", no doubt -- participating in protest demonstration, rally and hunger strike side by side with the common people. If he is measured in totality, his strengths are more weighty than his weaknesses.

Why Was He an "Activist Bishop"?

Bishop John Joseph was in Rome doing doctoral studies in theology when the Second Vatican Council (1963-1965) was going on. He was greatly influenced by both the Second Vatican Council and the ongoing "Liberation Theology" of Latin America. The Vatican Council opened the windows of the Catholic Church to make it a real Church with participation of common people in different aspects of its life. As a result, the bishops and priests, leaving their former aloofness and "arrogant attitude", tried to become more humble, participatory and accessible. The Church wanted to be the Church of the People of God.

The "liberation theology", on the other hand, was a movement in the Catholic Church, especially in Latin America, partly inspired by the Second Vatican Council and the 1967 papal encyclical Populorum Progressio (of Pope Paul VI). Father Gustavo Gutierrez of Peru, Father Leonardo Boff of Brazil, and Father Juan Luis Segundo of Uruguay were the leading exponents of this theology, which received encouragement from the Latin American Bishops -- especially, in resolutions adopted at 1968 Bishops' Conference of Latin America in Medellin, Columbia.

According to this theology, the Gospel of Christ demands that the church concentrate its efforts on socio-economic justice -- that is, liberating people from poverty and oppression. Others in the Catholic Church objected to this theology that also used some Marxist ideas, supported for revolutionary movements and criticized traditional Church institutions.

What Others Say of Bishop John Joseph

On the eighth anniversary of the death in 2006, Bishop Andrew Francis of the Catholic Diocese of Multan described Bishop John Joseph as "perennial voice of ecumenical and inter-faith dialogue," who "preached the words of the Gospel with all his life." He also said that Bishop John lived "according to the words of Mahatma Gandhi: 'We must be the change, we wish to be in the world.'"

On May 6, 2006, at the seminar "Bishop John Joseph and Protection of Religious Minorities", Bishop Joseph Coutts of Faisalabad said that Bishop John Joseph was known as a "Bishop of the downtrodden and had served the people of God till his death." Mr. Peter Joseph at the same seminar said: "Bishop John Joseph rose above and fought against the discriminations based on belief, gender and territories." Mr. Cecil Chaudhary said: "Bishop John was not the only Bishop of Christian community, but a Bishop of whole Pakistan and had been struggling for a peaceful and non-discriminated society. The movement of struggle for equal rights would continue." Joel Amir Sahotra said: "Bishop John was a religious as well as leader. He motivated the youth to come in the forefront and led the community and would always be remembered in all struggles against the injustices." Yousaf Pirandita said: "Bishop John laid down his life so that others may live in peace."

The termed Bishop John Joseph as the "Qui Yuan of South Asia." "Qui Yuan, who was living in China in 200 B.C., was a clear-headed person in a very confused country at a difficult time. He knew his people, therefore, he gave advice to the emperor to make things better for the people. The emperor ignored his advice. To stress on the importance of his advice, Qui Yuan drowned himself in a river. His protest drew attention of the people. Similarly, Bishop John Joseph is a modern hero who was a clear-headed person living in a confused country. His country's blindness came from religious fundamentalism where under blasphemy law persons were condemned to death. After protesting against this for a long time, the Bishop realized the depth of the problem, when mobs encouraged by fanatical [Muslim] clerics killed one of his people in front of the court. As short time later, the Bishop promising that he will sacrifice his life to stop this from happening, shot himself to death in front of the same court. His death shocked whole world and Pakistan in particular. Bishop John Joseph represents the great spirit of protest not only for the people of Pakistan but also for South Asia in general. This needs to be celebrated and the cause for which he gave his life needs to be pursued with courage and dedication."

Life-Sketch of Bishop John Joseph

Bishop John Joseph was born on November 15, 1932 at Khushpur of Faisalabad District under the Punjab Province of British India.

He passed his Matriculation Examinations (Grade 10) from St. Thomas High School at Khuspur in 1949. He then passed F.Sc. from the Government College of Faisalabad. After studying in Lahore Seminary, he pursued his philosophical and theological studies at the Christ the King (Major) Seminary in Karachi. He was ordained as the first Punjabi priest on January 18, 1960. In 1964, he received his Ph.D. degree in theology from the Angelicum (the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, run by the Dominicans) in Rome. In 1958, he completed his Urdu Fazil studies and in 1969 did his Masters in Urdu from the Government College of Faisalabad. He also played a pioneering role in the modern translation of the Bible as well as Catholic liturgy and prayers in Urdu.

In 1970-1980 he was Professor and Dean of Studies at the Christ the King Seminary, Karachi. On October 24, 1980, he was nominated as the Auxiliary Bishop of Faisalabad. He was consecrated a Bishop on January 9, 1981. On January 24, 1984, he became the bishop of Faisalabad.

He also served as the Chairman of the National Commission for Justice and Peace, National Commission for Christian-Muslim Relations, and Catholic Literature Board.

If you are interested in reading about the dedicated life of Bishop John Joseph, please go to and type in The Christians of Pakistan: The Passion of Bishop John Joseph by Linda S. Walbridge.

Bishop John Joseph Shaheed (Martyr) Trust

To continue the outreach programmes that Bishop John Joseph was personally involved with, Johnson Michael, a Catholic layman and nephew of the late bishop, established Bishop John Joseph Shaheed Trust in 2001 in his honour.

These programmes are in health (to bring medical care to neglected rural areas in the diocese of Faisalabad), in human rights (to continue the fight of Bishop John Joseph against discriminatory laws) and in the promotion of social harmony. Father Shafiq Hadayet, director of Faisalabad diocese's Inter-religious and Ecumenical Commission, told the UCANews that "the trust continues the work of Bishop Joseph had started. The bishop wanted to reach out to those who are unreached."


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