Bishop John Joseph: A life that inspires beyond death

There is a good chance that you have never heard of Bishop John Joseph but in Pakistan, for the country’s Christians at least, he is a hero. On 6 May, Pakistani Christians reflected in their own quiet way the 14 years that have passed since this fearless defender of the faith shot himself in a final desperate act he hoped would end, once and for all, the atrocities being perpetrated against the tiny Christian community.

He wrote prior to his death: “I shall count myself extremely fortunate if in this mission of breaking the barriers, our Lord accepts the sacrifice of my blood for the benefit of his people.”

The courage and conviction of these words are as much a challenge to us today in this age of consumerism and comfortable Christianity as they were when he wrote them before his death in 1998. In Pakistan, Christianity is not the faith people choose if they want to improve their material circumstances or have an easy life. There are no misguided notions in Pakistan that life as a Christian will be plain sailing.

Instead, Christianity is the faith that two million Pakistanis cling to out of sheer conviction that God made himself known to the world through the life and death of Jesus Christ. On this they cannot compromise, even if it costs them. And cost them it does. Blasphemy laws have been around since the formation of Pakistan in 1947 but the terrible turning point came in 1986, when General Zia-ul-Haq introduced the mandatory death sentence to blasphemy convictions.

To this date, no death sentence for blasphemy has ever been carried out but dozens have been murdered extra-judicially because of blasphemy allegations. Victims include Christians who were acquitted of all blasphemy charges in the courts, only to be hunted down when they were released from prison. Others didn’t even make it to the courts. They were simply murdered by angry mobs or individuals determined to carry out their own justice regardless of the truth, regardless of whether the Christians had really committed the crimes or not. In most cases, they had not.

The years preceding Bishop Joseph’s protest death saw injustice after injustice – the murder of Christian school teacher Naimat Ahmar, the bloody attack on the Christian village of Shantinagar, the murder of Manzoor Masih, and the sentencing to death of Ayub Masih.

To the bishop, the blasphemy laws were not only being misused to make life miserable for Christians. They were also responsible for widening the gap between the two faith communities and fomenting deep distrust and enmity.

When Manzoor Masih was killed, Bishop Joseph made a promise that no one else would lose their life to the blasphemy laws in his lifetime. When Ayub Masih was sentenced to death, he was shattered, coming face to face with his own helplessness.

Bishop Joseph dedicated so much of his life to raising awareness of the plight of Christians at the national and international level, and had campaigned tirelessly for the repeal of the blasphemy laws. Yet the more he cried out, the more it seemed Pakistan was not listening and the world was not listening.

Days after the death sentence was passed against Ayub Masih, Bishop Joseph made the ultimate protest against the blasphemy laws. When words seem to fall dead at people’s ears, perhaps one final devastating, horrifying action would be a cry loud enough for the world not to ignore?

We have seen, however, that the blood of an innocent man means nothing to Pakistan’s repugnant extremists and the blasphemy laws continue to claim Christian lives to this day. In 2009, nine Christians were burnt to death when Muslims went on the rampage in Gojra. Today, Mother-of-five Asia Bibi languishes in prison more than a year after she was sentenced to death for blasphemy, uncertain of the outcome of her appeal. Two ministers who defended her in public – Shahbaz Bhatti and Salman Taseer – were murdered by radicals.

The atrocities may be perpetrated by extremists but the government must bear some of the responsibility for the bloodshed. Bishop John Joseph’s death was not enough to stir it to take action. Nor have been the hundreds of murders and assaults and attacks and rapes and abductions perpetrated against Christians in the intervening years. Still, the government turns a blind eye to their evil deeds. The few politicians who have dared to speak up for reform of the blasphemy laws have either paid with their lives or been threatened into silence.

There is no doubt that the government’s refusal to address this matter in parliament will cost more lives in the future, be that in extrajudicial killings or unjust imprisonments. But I refuse to believe that Bishop John Joseph’s death was in vain. His sacrifice is remembered by grateful Christians to this day. He lives on in their hearts and inspires a determination to endure daily hardship. Most importantly, young Christians continue to look to him as an example of faith and courage - Shahbaz Bhatti was one such Christian who felt called to follow in his footsteps. The name of Bishop John Joseph may not mean much to Christians elsewhere, but to the church in Pakistan, he will never be forgotten. That is why, for all the bloodshed, for all the killings, for all the death and persecution, the light of the church in Pakistan has not been put out.