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Suicide ignites debate on blasphemy laws

By NCR Staff

Unrest in Pakistan continued following the funeral of Bishop John Joseph of Faisalabad, who shot himself May 6 to protest the death sentence given a Catholic convicted of blasphemy against Islam.

Some 25,000 mourners attended the May 10 funeral of Joseph at the Faisalabad cathedral. The bishop, 65, who chaired the Pakistani bishops' justice and peace commission, killed himself in Sahiwal at the site where Ayub Massih was sentenced to death April 27. The site is also where Ayub had been shot at while awaiting a court hearing Nov. 6.

The Multan section of the Lahore High Court suspended the lower court's sentence against Ayub May 12. Ayub's defense presented documents showing that he had studied the Quran, Islam's holy book, for years and holds no hostility toward Islam.

Following Joseph's burial, Muslims attacked and burned Christian homes and shops, leaving dozens homeless. Sixteen Muslims and five Christians were arrested.

Muslim extremists were turned back by police May 11 from advancing on Christian homes and churches. Violence also marred a May 8 memorial service in the bishop's home village of Kushpur, where some mourners threw stones at the police. Police chief Mian Asif said his men had been ordered to fire over the demonstrators' heads, but at least two fired into the crowd. Three people were hospitalized with bullet wounds.

The day before killing himself, Joseph wrote that the blasphemy laws are "the greatest block in the good and harmonious relations between Muslims and the religious minorities in Pakistan."

Michael Javed, a Pakistani National Assembly member appointed to represent the nation's non-Muslim groups, said the blasphemy law is used to victimize Christians and other minorities. Police use the law to extort money from minorities, he said.

Three Pakistani bishops attending the Synod of Bishops for Asia in Rome May 8 called Joseph's suicide "a sudden and cruel extinction of a bright and shining light. He was prepared to offer his life for the abolition of the laws repeatedly misused against innocent minorities."

Former prime minister and opposition leader Benazir Bhutto said Joseph's death showed the frustration of minority communities over the misuse of the blasphemy laws by "extremist and bigoted elements."

Miraj Mohammad, general secretary of Tehrik-e-Insaf (Organization for Justice), called the bishop's death "a silent protest by a helpless man."

However, some Muslim and government leaders in Pakistan continued to voice support for the blasphemy laws. Some Muslims have threatened general strikes and to bring down the central government if concessions are made to the Christian minority.

"The allegation that this law discriminates against religious minorities is not correct," said National Democratic Party head Nawabzada Nasaullah Khan.

Maulana Abdul Sattar Niazi, a prominent Muslim scholar, called the bishop's act "an act of stupidity. He must have failed to understand the rationale and beauty of the law."

Meanwhile, in New Delhi, India, some 70 Catholics and Protestants protested the blasphemy laws at the Pakistan High Commission May 8. A statement presented by Catholic Auxiliary Bishop Vincent Concessao of Delhi and retired Bishop Pritam Santram of the Church of North India said the laws have become "an instrument of discrimination and victimization of the poor and helpless, particularly of Pakistan's minorities."

This report is based on material from wire services.

National Catholic Reporter, May 15, 1998