Statement of the National Commission for Justice and Peace in Pakistan
Rev. Dr. John Joseph, 66, Catholic bishop of Faisalabad and a high profile human rights activist, shot himself dead in the dark corridors of a sessions court in Sahiwal (700 kilometres from the capital, Islamabad) at about 9:30 p.m. on 6 May 1998 in protest against the death sentence recently given to Ayub Masih on 27 April for blaspheming Islam. This is the same spot where Ayub Masih, a Christian of his diocese, was shot at on 6 November 1997.
Bishop John Joseph travelled to the city of Sahiwal in the afternoon of 6 May from his residence in Faisalabad. He went to address a prayer meeting for the Christian parishioners there specially organised for the victims of blasphemy cases. Since the early 1990s when Section 295-C of the Pakistani Penal Code was amended, making the death sentence mandatory for the offence of blaspheming Islam, dozens of non-Muslims have fallen victims to the often-abused blasphemy laws. And the bishop was deeply shocked by Ayub’s verdict.
At dinner time on 6 May, Bishop John Joseph had little appetite as according to the parish priest, Fr. Yaqoob Farooq, O.P.. After others had had their meals, the bishop asked Fr. Yaqoob to accompany him to the spot of the court-house where Ayub Masih was shot at exactly six months ago. On reaching close to the vicinity of the sessions court, the bishop asked Fr. Yaqoob to stay back and went to the spot himself. Moments after, Fr. Yaqoob heard a gun shot. He then rushed to the spot and found the bishop had shot himself in the neck. According to Fr. Yaqoob, Bishop John Joseph was instantly dead.
On hearing the news of the bishop’s death, the Christian populace of the city gathered at the spot in the court-house. As of 12:35 a.m. of 7 May, the Christians there refused to remove the dead body until the prime minister would come personally to express his sorrow. Bishop John Joseph, a human rights activist well-known locally and internationally, was the founding chairperson of the National Commission for Justice and Peace under the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Pakistan, and he remained in office since its establishment in 1984.
Bishop John Joseph had led two nationwide protests of the Christian community and even went on hunger strike for the cause. The first protest was in 1992 against the government’s proposal to include a column for one’s religious faith in the national identity cards. Christians and other minorities in the community thought that the new identity card system would lead to further victimisation of religious minorities in Pakistan. The second nationwide protest was in 1994 against the murder of Manzoor Masih, a Christian tried on blasphemy, outside the court right after the court hearing on 5 April 1994.
On 20 March 1998, Bishop John Joseph led an ecumenical rally for Christian solidarity in Vienna in which personnel from both the Catholic and Protestant Church hierarchies took part in the programme. He gave a homily on the persecution of religious minorities in Pakistan, especially the impact of the notorious blasphemy laws. The bishop told the rally that "we object to these (the blasphemy) laws because they are the main hindrance to Christian-Muslim relations. We shall fight till the dawn comes, (and) the forms (of this fight) may be diverse."
It is sad, and extremely sad, that the bishop’s decision has taken away the best of the best from the human rights movement in Pakistan. Nonetheless, his message comes through very clearly. The death of Bishop John Joseph has thoroughly explained the despair towards the many injustices and sufferings induced on the people of Pakistan, as well as the sacrifice this human rights activist was ready to make for justice’s sake.
Posted on 2001-08-24