Catholic martyr still a thorn in Pakistan's side

A bishop's suicide has pushed Christians on the sub-Continent to campaign against blasphemy laws.
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The Independent Online
THREE weeks after the event, the shock waves caused by the suicide of Pakistan's most prominent and outspoken Catholic bishop, Dr John Joseph, are still reverberating.

On Sunday a large crowd of Indian Christians, protesting against the infamous blasphemy law that prompted the bishop's death, tried to break through the border into Pakistan at Wagah, north-west India. The US State Department has voiced its indignation. And in a move that would have pleased the bishop, Pakistan's churches have, since his death, for the first time decided to campaign together against the law.

John Joseph, the tall, lean, 65-year-old cleric who was one of the first native Pakistanis to be consecrated a bishop, shot himself through the temple on the steps of the sessions court in the town of Sahiwal in West Punjab on the evening of Wednesday 6 May. According to Patras Samuel, the bishop's driver who was only yards away at the time, and who was the first person to reach the body - "Blood was spurting everywhere... I was crying" - the bishop died almost at once.

None of John Joseph's close colleagues are in any doubt as to why he died: to bring pressure to bear on the government to repeal a pernicious law which has already resulted in the deaths through lynching of six people, including a High Court judge. The law in question is section 295(C) of the Pakistan Penal Code, promulgated by the dictator Zia ul'Haq in 1986. It is a simple enough statute: "Whoever ... directly or indirectly defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad ... shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life".

The defilement can be merely spoken; all that is required for a conviction is one complainant, and one witness. Although life imprisonment is an option, judges have so far preferred to pass death sentences. None of these has yet been carried out, and some have been overturned by higher courts, but since 1990 Muslim fanatics have taken it upon themselves to murder five people either accused or convicted under the statute, and one High Court judge who overturned a lower court's blasphemy conviction.

The story that culminated in Bishop Joseph's death began in October 1996. Ayyub Masih, a 25-year-old Christian, lived with his Christian family in an overwhelmingly Muslim village in the country outside the town of Sahiwal. He was the first person in his family to become literate, passing his Matriculation Exam in 1996. By trade he was a mason.

The allegation has a farcical quality. On 14 October, according to the prosecution, Ayyub was sitting in the street outside his house when three Muslims happened by. Ayyub, it is alleged, told one of them, Muhammad Akram, that his religion was right and Muhammad's was wrong. He then invited the Muslims to go with him to Karachi to peruse the book written by "Sulman Rushadi", whereupon they would realise that their religion was false and the Holy Prophet a liar. "Exasperated", the petition goes on, "the complainant grappled with Ayyub Masih" and the latter was then handed over to the police.

According to Ayyub, the entire case was a fabrication, cooked up between his family's landlord, a relative of a man in the local police department, and the complainant and witnesses, who were given a large financial inducement to testify. The motive: to force Ayyub's and the other Christian families to abandon the village, then seize their land.

And even while Ayyub Masih sat in the local police station, that is what happened. His mother, Anaida Masih, told The Independent, "When they came and seized my son, they beat him with sticks and pelted him with stones in the middle of the village, then took him to the police station. At the same time, the mob started attacking our house, firing guns, throwing stones, trying to set it on fire. We had lived peacefully in the village for 40 years, but one hour after Ayyub was stoned we ran away from the village with just what we stood up in." Since then, their house and property have been burned, and the other 15 Christian families have fled as well.

After leaving the village, and after her son had been charged with blasphemy, Anaida Masih took her woes to Dr Joseph. John Joseph was long known as a campaigning bishop. In 1992 his hunger strike helped persuade the government to drop its plan to include religious affiliation on identity cards. He had been leading the fight against the blasphemy law for years. "We have struggled to save every citizen accused of blasphemy," he said in January. He blamed "the extremist element" for killing "a number of Christians before they were even tried", and went on: "When I was preaching at the funeral of Manzoor Masih, who was killed during his trial outside the High Court in Lahore, I said: `Manzoor, we are very sorry for what has happened to you. We shall not allow any more of these murders.'"

One month ago, on 27 April, the death sentence was pronounced on Ayyub Masih. "I came to Faisalabad to give the bishop the news," his mother recalled, "and he was very upset. I said, `God will help us,' but he was very worried. Then he said to me, `Before Ayyub dies, I will die. With my sacrifice, perhaps something will happen.'"

And he was not just saying this to Ayyub Masih's mother: John Joseph was telling the world at large. In a document he sent to Rome, read out there the day before his death, he said: "I shall count myself fortunate if in this mission of breaking barriers, our Lord receives the sacrifice of my blood for the benefit of his people."

His fellow Catholics in Pakistan heard his words but did not realise how deeply he meant them. Today they are still trying to come to terms with the implications. Ayyub Masih's death sentence has not been overturned, but his mother says: "I am not upset about Ayyub - I have many sons. I am upset because we will not get our bishop back."

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