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Many Pakistanis believe bishop died a martyr, but persecution goes on

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

One year ago, on May 6, Bishop John Joseph of Faisalabad, Pakistan, stood outside a courthouse and shot himself in the head with a pistol. His action -- widely understood as a protest against persecution of Christians in Pakistan -- resounded through the country and echoed into the wider world.

In Pakistan, Joseph is hailed as a martyr. His death is never described as “suicide” -- an act condemned by the Catholic church -- but as a sacrifice on behalf of his people.

“The very night he gave his sacrifice, people sent out messages, first in the city of Sahiwal, later by telephones all over the country,” recalled Fr. Bonnie Mendes, a priest of Faisalabad diocese. “At once there were demonstrations, processions, rallies and the unanimous slogan, ‘Bishop John Joseph, martyr.’ For the people, he is no less than that.”

A few days before Joseph shot himself, a Christian man, Ayub Masih, had been condemned to death at the courthouse for blasphemy against Islam. His crime: He allegedly had spoken favorably of British author Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses. Muslim officials called for Rushdie’s death in 1989, forcing him into hiding.

For Joseph, the persecution of Ayub Masih symbolized the plight of all Christians in Pakistan. Masih -- a name given to all Christians in Pakistan -- was the fourth Christian to be sentenced to death for blasphemy in that country since the early 1990s. It was a use of religion by Islamic authorities that amounts to “purely political gimmickry,” according to Peter Jacob, executive secretary of Pakistan’s National Commission for Justice and Peace. Three others had their convictions overturned by higher courts, but death threats forced them into exile. Several Christians have been killed in mob violence while awaiting trail for blasphemy charges.

Joseph said the charges against Ayub Masih had been trumped up to force 15 Christian families out in a local land dispute.

Speaking at a rally in Vienna, Austria, in March 1998, one of his last public speeches outside Pakistan, Joseph, summed up the sentiments of Christians in Pakistan, had warned, “We have had enough. We shall protest in such a way that the world will be shocked.”

Bishop Joseph Coutts, Joseph’s successor, said, “For the people, Bishop John is quite clearly a martyr,” whether he is officially accepted as one or not. In Pakistan, people saw his action as like that of a mother who throws herself in the line of fire to save her child from being killed, he said. “The words of Ayub Masih’s mother sum it up: ‘He died to save my son’s life.’ ”

This popular sentiment is evident at the bishop’s grave today. His gravesite in the compound at the Faisalabad cathedral has become a shrine that pilgrims visit.

A calculated risk

Those who knew the bishop well deny speculation that he was depressed or ailing.

“He was of sound mind -- one of the most sound minds in the Catholic church of Pakistan,” says Mendes, who first met Joseph in 1956 when they were both seminarians. Mendes spent years struggling beside Joseph on the peace and justice commission and many other projects.

Mendes describes the bishop’s suicide as “a well thought out calculated risk. I am sure he prayed over it for a long time. In the last year or more, he kept saying, the time for sacrifice has come. You could say that he was full of hope that his death would help highlight the sufferings of the minorities internationally.

“I think it became quite clear to him that now was the time to give a big push and to do something dramatic,” said Coutts, who studied dogmatic theology under then-Fr. Joseph at the National Theology Seminary in Karachi and in 1976 joined the seminary faculty when Joseph was dean of studies. The two served together on the bishops’ conference of Pakistan for 10 years.

In Lahore on April 7, 1994, at the funeral of Manzoor Masih (another Christian charged with blasphemy who was gunned down outside the courthouse while still on trial), Joseph publicly announced that he was ready to die if necessary.

Mendes recalls the words the bishop preached at Manzoor Masih’s funeral: “Bishop John said, ‘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 the country.’ ”

Mendes says that the bishop’s last public address, which he faxed to a seminar to be held in Rome in conjunction with the Synod of Bishops for Asia in March 1998, is significant. The last two paragraphs read:

“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 own 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.”

Coutts said that Joseph was always willing to back his words with action. In 1992, for example, when Christian leaders were protesting throughout the country against the government’s plan to include religion on National Identity Cards, Joseph announced that he was going to begin a fast unto death in protest. It took the intervention of Archbishop Armando Trindade, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Pakistan, to stop Joseph’s fast.

A few days before his death, Joseph sent letters to friends, colleagues, nongovernmental organizations and human rights groups inside and outside of Pakistan and to local newspapers. The bishop called for Masih’s sentence to be overturned. He also urged united action to repeal the blasphemy laws. He admonished people not to worry about “about the sacrifices we shall have to offer; dedicated persons do not count the cost.” Eight days later he was dead.

People disagree on whether Joseph’s sacrifice made a difference.

Immediately afterward a groundswell of support for repealing the laws emerged. Rallies, protests and agitations continued a couple months after his death.

Four more cases

Since then at least four more cases of alleged blasphemy have been recorded. And Ayub Masih is still in prison. Discrimination against religious minorities continue. In September 1998, the government of Nawaz Sharif introduced in parliament a constitutional amendment that would make the Quran and Sunnah (the way of the Prophet Mohammed) the “supreme law” of the land. The lower house approved it in October by a two-thirds majority.

Peter Jacob says that Sharif introduced the constitutional amendment in a cynical ploy to shore up sagging popularity: Pakistan was suffering under economic sanctions imposed after it exploded nuclear devices on May 28, 1998, and the country was about to default on international loans.

Mendes said that if Joseph were here today he would be shouting himself hoarse to change the current situation. So in this sense, Mendes said, “the loss is irreparable. Bishop John is not with us. We miss him.”

Coutts adds, “The church in Pakistan needed Bishop John Joseph alive, not dead.

“Yet, in dying for a cause, he has brought about an awareness of the sufferings of the Christian community that most Muslims were not sensitive to. His death was a cry of pain, but also a defiant call to be ready to die for justice and peace.

“His death has become the reference point for continuing the struggle for justice.”

National Catholic Reporter, May 7, 1999