Riots at suicide bishop's memorial

Marcus Tanner on the violent feelings aroused by the self-sacrifice of a cleric who fought religious persecution
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The Independent Online
THE procession in memory of the Pakistani bishop who killed himself in protest at the sentencing to death of a fellow Catholic turned violent yesterday when police fired into a crowd of furious mourners, wounding several.

John Joseph, Bishop of Faisalabad, 150 miles from the capital, Islamabad, shot himself on Thursday in the court building where Ayub Massih was condemned to death last month for allegedly praising Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses. The bishop was a long-standing, vociferous opponent of Pakistan's blasphemy laws, passed in the early Nineties under the former leader General Zia and which stipulate the death sentence for those defiling the name of the Prophet Muhammad. They have been criticised by human-rights groups as being vaguely worded and thus liable to be used to intimidate the country's small non-Muslim minority.

The clashes yesterday started after 2,000 mourners formed a procession to take the coffin to the cathedral in Faisalabad, where the funeral is to be held tomorrow. Many were chanting slogans against Zia and the religious law.

Police and mourners traded accusations over who initiated the clash. The city's police chief said his men came under attack first from a hail of stones, while the mourners said the stone-throwing started on the police side. As the police fired over - and into - the crowd, several mourners were hit, including a young girl shot in the stomach. The rest of the crowd fled into the cathedral, which the police surrounded.

The clashes and the bishop's gesture of self-sacrifice are unlikely to achieve their object of forcing Pakistan to repeal its religious laws.

They are intended only to protest Islam and not oppress other faiths - according to the government.

The US yesterday repeated its call for the government to drop the case against Ayub Massih and repeal the laws.

Christians form a small, impotent community in Pakistan.Many are descendants of the poorest sections of the community who accepted the faith of European missionaries in the 18th and 19th centuries and are thus open to the charge of accepting the religion of the colonial oppressor.

The object of the bishop's gesture of self-sacrifice is in jail pending an appeal, his family a target for Islamic militants. Bashiran Bibi, his mother, said her entire family had had to leave their village.

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