Bishop kills himself in Rushdie row protest

Click to follow
The Independent Online
A CATHOLIC bishop in Pakistan has shot himself dead in protest against the death sentence pronounced on a Christian for defaming Mohammad and allegedly praising the author Salman Rushdie.

Bishop John Joseph, 67, took his own life after leading a procession to the court of Sahiwal town in the Punjab, where Ayub Masih, a Catholic, was given the death sentence.

Masih, 25, was sentenced under laws introduced by the country's former president, General Zia, in the early Nineties, which outlaw remarks offensive to the majority Muslim faith. Masih's crimes included speaking favourably of the author of The Satanic Verses, still under a death penalty by Iranian religious leaders.

John Joseph, bishop of Faisalabad near Lahore since 1981, had already publicly opposed the blasphemy laws, and was said to have been distraught over the latest verdict, which he thought confirmed his worst suspicions about the law. First, it was simply the word of one Muslim against one Christian, in which the former was given priority. Second, he feared the motive was a plot by local Muslims to drive Masih and his Christian neighbours off their land.

Last month, after the verdict was delivered, the bishop warned that he was preparing to make an "astonishing" protest. Yesterday, he returned to the court building accompanied by another priest, whom he told to wait outside. The bishop went in, and in a dark corridor, shot himself.

His bizarre death has shocked not only Pakistan's 2 million or so Christians, who make up only a tiny proportion of Pakistan's 135 million population, but the country's human rights groups as well.

"His [the bishop's] decision has taken away the best of the best from the human rights movement in Pakistan," said Peter Jacob, a Catholic spokesman.

In a letter to a newspaper, which was published yesterday, the bishop urged Muslims, as well as his fellow Christians and minority faiths, to protest against the blasphemy laws.

"We must act strongly in unity, Christians and Muslims, in order not only to get this [Masih's] death sentence suspended but to get [legal articles] 295 B and C repealed without worrying about the sacrifices we shall have to offer," he wrote.

Yesterday it became clear that the bishop was indeed prepared to make the final sacrifice. His body was returned to his home village near Faisalabad for burial. In Rome, Asian bishops gathered for a synod honoured their dead colleague with a period of silence.