May 7 2022
By Xari Jalil
24 years after the death of Bishop John Joseph, an event was organized on May 6, by the Center for Social Justice, to commemorate him and the sacrifice he made.
In 1998, Bishop Dr John Joseph of the Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral Faisalabad took up the cause of a young Christian man Ayub Masih who had been accused of blasphemy. As Ayub Masih maintained he was innocent, Bishop Joseph too asserted that Masih had been wrongly accused by someone whose objective was to take over his property. Still, a Sahiwal civil court went on to declare Masih guilty and only a few days after Easter, sentenced him to death.
Bishop Joseph was immensely worried about the death sentence and Masih’s fate and tried to arrange for lawyers to appeal the sentence. It was not the first time that Bishop Joseph had fought the Blasphemy cases. The 66-year-old Bishop had campaigned against the blasphemy laws and their misuse for a long time. Shortly before his death, he sent a letter to the Dawn newspaper which highlighted that Christians and Muslims should act together to get Ayub Masih’s death sentence lifted and to get the blasphemy laws repealed. The letter ended by him saying that “dedicated persons do not count the cost of the sacrifices they have to offer”.
On May 6, Dr Joseph went to the Sahiwal court building, where the sentence had been passed, and shot himself in protest in the compound of the Sahiwal courthouse.
AN EXTRAORDINARY FIGURE
The first native Pakistani Bishop, Dr John Joseph was known to be an extraordinary man. In the first place, he was dedicated and stood up for the rights of the downtrodden.
Bishop Azad Marshall remembers a convention where the Bishop was sitting right next to him and had a very ‘encouraging presence’.
“I still remember how Bishop John Joseph told me to speak up,” says Bishop Azad Marshall, of the Raiwind Diocese. “We were at a convention, and I was a junior Bishop at the time and he was telling me to speak out about a certain matter. I will never forget how he told me that ‘Silence is a Crime’.”
Bishop Joseph was the first indigenous Pakistani bishop; he was an activist, committed to the rights of religious minorities in Pakistan; he was a scholar, trained in Rome, and a translator of Christian texts and terms into Urdu.
It is said that Bishop John quickly assumed a high profile as the “people’s bishop.” His house in Faisalabad used to be open every Monday and Tuesday for visitors from his diocese. He led campaigns for social justice and famously blocked a bulldozer that was about to demolish a shantytown where Christian manual labourers lived.
He went on a public hunger strike to protest the column of religion added in identity cards, which he believed subjected religious minorities including Christians and even Shias to discrimination.
The organizers of the memorial seminar eulogized the efforts of Bishop John Joseph for his protest against religious intolerance in the country. Sadly though it has only increased.
“The blasphemy laws and their shenanigans are as strong as ever – new forms of faith-based injustice have emerged including mob-lynchings, forced conversions, displacement, extortion, desecration of places of worship and kidnapping under the garb of marriage. But the state remains insensitive and society is unaware of the cost of such a skewed polity.”
Masood said that Bishop John had carried out the highest form of civil protest in the hope that the national conscience may wake up, but nothing happened. He recounted the assassinations of Salmaan Taaseer, Shahbaz Bhatti, Rashed Rehman, and that Asiya Bibi spent over a decade in prison under false charges, Junaid Hafeez is still in prison as are so many more all in the name of blasphemy.
“Our job is to protest. There is no shortcut to deliverance from this kind of injustice. We must keep hope alive,” he said.
Data collected by the Centre for Social Justice, shows that at least 1,949 persons have suffered from false allegations, prolonged trials, and displacement from 1985 till December 2021. It added that at least 84 persons had been killed after being suspected or accused under the blasphemy laws, including the lynching of Sri Lankan national Priyantha Kumara in Sialkot that tarnished the image of Pakistan.
In April, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) designated Pakistan as a “country of particular concern” due to its worsening religious freedom conditions for Christians and other religious minorities.
Meanwhile, Bishop Azad Marshall said that while there was a very stringent blasphemy law in place, there should also be a deterrent law to balance it out, especially in the case of false accusations of blasphemy. The accuser must be punished so that such incidents do not happen again.
Saroop Ijaz, lawyer and senior counsel for Human Rights Watch (Asia), said that “Religious intolerance in Pakistan is enabled and sometimes even encouraged by discriminatory laws and policies which violate the foundational principle of any modern, egalitarian state: equal citizenship.” He said that this had led to harmful societal attitudes, acceptance of religious intolerance by government institutions, and the use of religious and exclusionary language in public spaces including by political parties and government institutions.
“The most recent example of the Single National Curriculum shows that there continues to be an attempt to ingrain exclusionary thought and language. There are no easy solutions, but one absolutely necessary step is to ensure equal treatment in the ambit of the law, and extend the protection of the law for all citizens.”
One of the most eminent human rights lawyers, especially since he helpde acquit Asiyq Bibi, Saif-ul-Mulook spoke about the workings of the courts and the challenges faced.
“Most of the cases that land in court come to the civil court and there the judges are under immense pressure; it cannot even be explained in words,” he informed.
He highlighted the scope of religious freedom in the constitution of Pakistan.
“It’s a big joke. These fundamental rights are neither seen in any court, assembly or office. The ‘Mullah’ (clerics) have become very strong. Nobody is willing to prosecute those killed in the name of religion. The clashes will continue till intolerance remains in society,” he said.
“Bishop Joseph worked relentlessly for interfaith harmony, peace and justice for two decades. He made a public statement that he was making a sacrifice to bring to attention the ‘stumbling block in the way of interfaith relations’, i.e. misuse of the blasphemy laws. No government made a serious effort to stop the misuse of these laws,” said Peter Jacob, executive director of the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ).
He also emphasised the implementation of the recommendations made by the judicial inquiry after the Gojra incident in 2009, to address the issue of abuse of blasphemy laws.
PTI leader and former MNA Shunila Ruth urged the participants to follow in the footsteps of the late bishop.
“It’s a challenge for us to continue his mission of human rights and fight against the misuse of the blasphemy laws. Even if the government wants to do something, they are helpless. Our Muslim brothers and sisters are also affected by this sword of blasphemy allegations,” she said.
IMPACT ON WOMEN
Meanwhile, human rights defender Tanveer Jahan, explained how the rise of intolerance impacted women, especially mentioning intersectionality.
“Women are already not enjoying an equal status,” she said. “But when you study intersectionality, minority women will be in a worse position – and if you add socioeconomic class to it, then even worse than that.”
Tanveer said that religious intolerance has increased many folds in Pakistan ever since the regime of military dictator General Zia, progressively worsening in the following decades with society being even more radicalized. Educational institutions and curricula have bred hatred, discriminatory laws are used against marginalized communities, and there is a poor rule of law and a culture of impunity that facilitates the perpetrators. Women from minority communities face a kind of double jeopardy.
“For minority women living in Pakistan is a perpetual struggle against discrimination, harassment, intimidation, the threat of abduction for conversion and forced marriages.”
Others who spoke included Father James Chanan, Kalyan Singh Kalyan, and Ahmar Rehman – cousin of human rights lawyer Rashed Rehman who was killed as he was fighting the Junaid Hafeez blasphemy case.
Veteran journalist and human rights defender Husain Naqi also spoke at the occasion saying that Bishop John Joseph whom he had met in the HRCP office must be always remembered by those who respect the constitution. Even though these Blasphemy laws are old, they were used most under Zia’s regime, and in the 90s mob violence arose surrounding fake accusations.