May 3, 2023
By Xari Jalil
The participants of a memorial conference, “Aspiration of an Inclusive Society” to mark the 25th Anniversary of Bishop John Joseph’s sacrifice was held on Wednesday, May 3, in remembrance of the Faislabad Bishop (1932-1998), who had sacrificed his life in a civil protest against the miscarriage of justice in cases involving accusations of blasphemy on 6 May 1998 in front of a Sahiwal court.
During the conference participants spoke up against growing religious intolerance, extremism, and discrimination, especially against religious minorities. They said that no serious measures to curb the misuse of blasphemy laws had been taken by authorities despite the extreme step taken by Bishop Joseph.
At the occasion, Bishop Joseph’s niece Firdous Kamran spoke to Voicepk.net about him.
A documentary was also screened about the life and work of Bishop John Joseph. An excerpt from the film shows an interview with the late Asma Jahangir, who was also foremost in speaking against the misuse of the blasphemy laws.
The conference agreed upon certain measures that must be in place and called upon the federal and provincial governments to take steps.
• Legislate to define the term ‘Discrimination’, and prosecute and punish discrimination in all forms and manifestations.
• Amend the constitutional provisions that are incompatible with fundamental rights given in the constitution to remove conceptual inconsistencies about the equality of rights among citizens.
• Constitute a high-powered committee to give effect to the recommendations of the Judicial Inquiry held after the mob attack in Gojra in 2009, in order to prevent the misuse of blasphemy laws, and prosecute the actors involved in incitement to violence against minorities using the pretext of blasphemy accusation.
• Discourage attempts to enhance punishment for blasphemy laws i.e. Criminal Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2023 to prevent its sad effects on sectarian and religious minorities.
• Introduce preventive legislation to criminalize forced faith conversions to bring perpetrators to justice for their crimes involving child marriage, forced conversion, and sexual violence against minority girls and women.
• Make the collected census data available online for identification of the uncounted and verification by citizens to ensure an accurate count of all citizens, including the population of religious minorities, persons with disabilities, and transgenders.
• Improve National Commission for Minorities Bill, 2023 in the light of recommendations made by human rights experts, to constitute an independent, autonomous, and resourceful body in conforming with UN Paris Principles and the directives of the Supreme Court issued on 19th June 2014.
• Implement and expand the scope of the quota for admission of minority students in educational institutions across the country.
• Provide textbooks and teachers in educational institutions to implement the policy decision on the subject of ‘Religious Education’ for minority students.
• Return all schools and colleges nationalized in 1972 to a competent board of administrators composed of the concerned community.
• Show regard to the constitutional protection of religious freedom and non-discrimination under articles 20 and 22 (1), of the Constitution of Pakistan in developing curricula and textbooks, and ensure compliance with the Supreme Court order No. ii (SMC No. 1 of 2014) emphasizing the promotion of a culture of religious and social tolerance.
TRIBUTES GIVEN TO LATE BISHOP
Peter Jacob, the chairperson of the People Commission for Minorities Rights (PCMR) gave his tribute to Bishop John Joseph for his early warning about the prevailing situation at the cost of his precious life. He added that the United Nations’ Human Rights Committee has called upon all states to repeal blasphemy laws or amend them in compliance with the strict requirements of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (CCPR), therefore, the government should create room to discuss this issue in a serious manner, as Pakistan is the most affected country by these laws.
Academic Wajahat Masood, who is also the chairperson of CSJ, said that minority communities are reluctant to give religious names to their children due to fear of unfair treatment on the basis of faith identity.
He added that religion is misinterpreted and blasphemy laws are misused for political motives by certain elements which resort to violence to influence policymaking, however, the state remains insensitive and society largely is unaware of the cost of such a skewed polity. He emphasized enabling non-discriminatory legal apparatus in Pakistan and hoped that sanity would prevail and the day would dawn when every citizen will be able to enjoy their rights fully and effectively.
Dr. Majid Abel, Archbishop Sebastian Shaw, Father Khalid Rashid Asi also spoke and said that the courts continue to issue verdicts, but sadly they fail to deliver justice in cases involving accusations of blasphemy.
Human rights activist and member of the Ahmadiyya community Qammar Suleman said that the government had introduced stern blasphemy laws to target sectarian and religious minorities, which led to causing intolerance and extremism in the country. He added that the government must take action against the people who take the law into their own hands and attack the accused without proper investigation.
Prof. Anjum James Paul said that the religious identity of the state is problematic for creating a tolerant society and serves as a tool for religiopolitical groups to influence the government to introduce public policies in favour of their interests, and contribute to causing religion-based discrimination, intolerance, and violence in society.
Human rights lawyer Saroop Ijaz said that religious intolerance is enabled in Pakistan and sometimes even encouraged by discriminatory laws and policies which violate the foundational principle of any modern, egalitarian state: equal citizenship. The government needs to ensure equal treatment in law and then extend the protection of the law for all citizens.
Other speakers included Justice (R) Nasira Javed Iqbal, Bishop Sebastian Shaw, Father James Channan, Ejaz Alam Augustine, Dr. Rubina Feroze Bhatti, Nabila Feroze Bhatti, Sr. Naseem George, Johnson Michael and Javed Gill Advocate