Bishop John Joseph ended his life to end the blasphemy laws of Pakistan, which are the time bombs tied to the bodies of the Christians, while the remote control is in the hands of the Muslims who can press the button any time to blow them up. The Pakistan of today is under the martial law of religion. Misusing the blasphemy laws, fundamentalists keep fanning the fire of hatred endangering the freedom of the peace-loving minorities. The article was written about 11 years ago.
Bishop John Joseph took several steps to help Ayub Masih as he did to help others. He met with Benezir Bhutto, the prime minister of Pakistan. He asked her to cancel the blasphemy charges against Ayub Masih. The Bishop addressed a rally of 700 Christians on the 30th of October, about two weeks after the arrest of Ayub Masih, to remind the President, Faroq Leghari, head of the State at that time, that he had promised Christians that no more charges would be laid without preliminary enquiries.
At the rally, Bishop John Joseph stated "If the government fails to honour its promise, then we have full rights to protest against such malpractices against Christian minority in Pakistan.9 The Bishop told Campus Direct over the phone `if Leghari did not cancel the charges against Masih within one month's time, he would launch another national crusade against the blasphemy law. The Bishop’s hunger strike two years ago had spearheaded a countrywide campaign to repeal Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws, which he says were being used as a weapon in the hands of Muslims' to victimize the country's Christian minority."10
It is not the first incident of this nature. There have been several Ayub Masihs who have been tortured and even killed by the sword of fanaticism, and condemned to death by the courts that are the reminder of the Middle Ages. A casual look at the history of Pakistan reveals that the stifling situation for Christians has been growing more stifling at a much alarming speed than one can imagine.
Let us go back to 1991 when Gul Masih, the first victim of the blasphemy laws, was arrested and tried in court. He was condemned to death on the 2nd of November of 1992. Gul Masih's only fault was that he contended all human beings are sinners. He was arrested on the charge that he defiled Islam and Prophet Mohammed. During the hearing, the first witness against him did not turn up in the court. The second witness told the court that he was present at the time. Such incident did not take place. There was no other witness. Nevertheless, the session court judge wrote, `Since the complainant is a graduate student, and has a beard, and the true look of a Muslim, I have no reason to doubt him. Hence I sentence Gul Masih to death.'
Another classical incident is of 12-year-old Salamat Masih who was sentenced to death in 1995. The accusation against him was that he wrote something against the Prophet Mohammed in a mosque. Salamat Masih was illiterate.
Among the well-known cases of terrorism is the attack of around fifty thousand zealots on the village of Shanti Nagar on the 6th of February of 1997. Police, including high-ranking officers, were repeatedly requested by the church priests for protection. Some officers took leave to be away on the day of attack. The mob was helped by 200 armed police officers who gave them some sort of explosives to burn the houses of Christians.
Pakistan Christian Community Council at Lahore says that the attack on Shanti Nagar was "a pre-planned plot made by the police officials of Police Station Khanewal Saddar and fundamentalists. Fully equipped with all modern and latest sophisticated weapons, they marched as an army towards the Christian churches, hostels, dispensaries and houses. This attack was not made by any foreign land people, but it was by the people of same country."11
Bishop John Joseph was involved with all these cases. He knew the Christians who were killed, even before they were tried, including Bantu Masih, Tahir Iqbal, Naimat Ahmar, Anwar Masih and Manzoor Masih. At the funeral of Manzoor Masih, Bishop John Joseph said , "Manzoor, we are sorry for what has happened to you. We shall not allow any more of these murders."12
Between the cases of Gul Masih and the death of the Bishop, there have been several incidents of rape, destruction of churches, murders, bonded labour, religious militancy and so forth. The Bishop brought to the notice of the public that "The government closes its eyes to the schools where male children are taken from age five and are trained in religious hatred and in handling weapons."13 He also condemned the laws against women because a woman's witness is considered only half compared to a man's in the courts of Pakistan.
Bishop John Joseph had tried his best to persuade the establishment to repeal the blasphemy laws because they are nightmares for the Christians of Pakistan--because they are the time bombs which are tied to the bodies of the Christians, while the remote control is in the hands of the Muslims who can press the button any time to blow them up. The Pakistan of today is under the martial law of religion. Misusing the blasphemy laws, fundamentalists keep fanning the fire of hatred endangering the freedom of the peace-loving minorities.
Bishop John Joseph fought peacefully to lift the martial law of religion. He struggled to free Christians from these time bombs of the blasphemy laws. He stood side by side with the victims who suffered through no fault of their own. He was in Shanti Nagar, a Christian village that was attacked by fanatics with the help of 200 police officers. He appeared before the court on behalf of the devastated residents of that village. Bishop John Joseph spoke for the victims who were denied their basic human rights. For him, freedom had no religion. He saw freedom through the eyes of humanity. Several human right activists and other enlightened Muslims were with him. He gave his life in the black corridors of the court to protest the black laws of the country and of the century.
Hearing the news of the Bishop's death, Christians gathered at the court. The next day at 12.25, the Christians refused to remove the dead body of the Bishop until the Prime Minister himself came to express his sorrow. But he did not come nor did any other government official. Ultimately, Christians took the dead body to the village where he was born. The decision was reversed and it was taken to the city where he served as the Bishop. According to The Gazette from Montreal, Canada, of the 9th May 1998, :"Bearing his body off in an ambulance, a huge procession of cars, buses and taxis then crawled 40 kilometres on pothole roads from Bishop John Joseph'e village Khushpur to the Cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Faisalabad. He was laid down to rest on May 10, 1998 in the compound of Bishop's House in the presence of more than ten thousand mourners. Thousands of other mourners who went from all over the country could not attend the funeral because the police did not allow them to enter the city.14
End persecution of Christians!" They shouted. The mourners were not spared by the police. Three people were hospitalized with bullet wounds. Among the injured was a young girl shot in the stomach. Johnson Michael who led the funeral procession said that the police threw stones first at the mourners. He accused the police of firing without provocation.
Munir Ahmed reports in the Times of India that "a mob of Muslim extremists terrorized a Christian neighbourhood in north-eastern Pakistan as thousands of mourners gathered on Sunday to bury a bishop" He adds "a mob of about 500 Muslim extremists rampaged through a nearby Christian neighbourhood. The mob burned shops and homes and terrorized hundreds of residents. `I begged them not to burn my children,' wailed 25-year-old Parveen Massih. She sat in her ruined home her head buried in her hands sobbing. `They tore my clothes and they said we are going to set your children on fire.'
"Her neighbour George Massih, 42, who is no relation, lost his home to the marauding band of extremists who doused his one-story brick home in kerosene before setting it on fire.' They even took my bible and set on fire, he said.
"After several homes and shops were burned and black plumes of smoke filled the air, riot police fired rounds of tear gas shells to disperse the mob, who screamed slogans in favour of Pakistan's controversial blasphemy laws. Extremists also were demanding the immediate execution of Ayub Massih.
"Christians in the neighbourhood retaliated against the attack on their homes by attacking policemen in the area, said eyewitnesses. The police fired more tear gas shells at the Christian demonstrators who accused the police of allowing the Muslim mob to destroy their homes."... The report of Munir Ahmed adds: "Under the shadow of heavy security, thousands of Christian mourners streamed in procession to the church, carrying banners demanding the abolition of controversial law and condemning the alleged persecution of Christian in the Islamic nation."15
The shocking part is that even the mourners were attacked. The same reporter says "The gates of the church were also manned by armed Christian volunteers". Why the gates of the church had to be manned by armed Christian volunteers? Obviously, Christian mourners did not trust the Muslim neighbourhood as well as the police.
The statements that the Pakistan leaders gave on the death of Bishop John Joseph prove that the leaders were either naive or malicious. Pakistan's Information Minister in those days, Mushahid Hussain, told the official APP news agency that "the minorities are getting full protection under law, constitution and under Islam in Pakistan." The Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said in a condolence message that "the Constitution of Pakistan guarantees full freedom and all sorts of fundamental rights to minorities."
M.B. Naqvi answered back in his article published in The Sunday Times of India that "Bishop's blood is unlikely to go waste." He added: "Many convictions have been handed down by session courts in Panjab and Sindh, though in all cases the high court has set them aside. That enables government ministers to add insult to injury by making dead pan statements that in Pakistan all minorities enjoy equal protection of law and constitution. Information minister Mushahid Hussain has just naively pronounced through the BBC that not a single execution has taken place under the Blasphemy Law.
"What he did not say was that none of those released by high courts could enjoy their freedom in the country. A young Christian and his uncle were shot dead near the high court and others had to take asylum in foreign countries. One of the judges who set free an accused in a blasphemy case was himself murdered. All courts, at least in Punjab, operate under duress from fanatical religious organizations when trying a blasphemy law; each hearing takes place amidst fierce slogan-chanting mobs milling around the court room."16
The above statement of Mr. Naqvi can be extended to include additional discriminatory laws and practices. For instance, no one from minority religious groups can be the head of the state and the head of the military. The witness of a non-Muslim in court is half and so is the witness of a woman. In some cases, witnesses from minorities are not acceptable. Usually, the lawyers who represent Christian victims are intimidated and their lives are threatened. The legal procedures are expensive, long and undependable. Anyone under the blasphemy laws can be arrested without a warrant from the court. The offense is not boilable. The trials are carried on by Muslim judges and Christians are allowed to hire only Muslim lawyers in a country in which the police are mainly Muslim. Often the accused lose their honour and properties long before their cases are brought to court. Under the blasphemy laws, the only penalty is death. In some cases, the accused were minors, like Salamat Masih who was twelve years old when condemned to death. He was illiterate, yet accused of writing something against Prophet Mohammed on the walls of a mosque. Mob violence is common in such cases. The blasphemy laws and electorate system have promoted hatred against minorities. Some restaurants keep separate glasses and plates for their Christian customers. The Muslims can and have applied the blasphemy laws to settle disputes relating to employment and property. Benezir Bhutto, former prime minister of Pakistan, condemned the blasphemy laws because they cannot be objectively applied in a country where anyone can buy evidence for less than twenty rupees, equal to roughly sixty cents. The latest case is of Pervez Masih, a teacher from Sialkot, who was sentenced to death in April 2001. It is also a case of business rivalry.
(Continued in Part 111)