Pakistani Christians are marking the 16th anniversary of Bishop John Joseph's death to remember his sacrifice and to renew the promise to continue the mission he started years ago against the injustice of discriminatory laws. The tyranny of the blasphemy law, which is considered the root cause of Christians' persecution, forced him to end his life on May 6, 1998 in front of Sahiwal Court in protest of the death sentence that had been handed to Christian Ayub Masih, who was later released on 15 August 2002 by the Pakistan Supreme Court.
Although he was a Catholic bishop, he was the bishop of everyone and more than a bishop, he was a human rights activist. His struggle for social justice and equal rights for Christians is unforgettable, and that is why he was popular among all faiths and denominations.
He was not only popular among Christians but equally popular among Muslims for promoting interfaith dialogue and interreligious harmony, because he was very well aware of the difficult times ahead for Christian minorities and believed that through dialogue and promoting interreligious harmony coexistence would be possible. However time has proved that this is something that has not been possible without him.
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." He had deep feelings in his heart for the poor and marginalised Christians, and was always ready to take away their suffering. The martyrdom of Bishop John Joseph gives us power and motivation to lead a life in his footsteps, and lay down our lives in a time of suffering, as a good shepherd does for his sheep.
He thought that his sacrifice would attract the Pakistani and international governments' attention and the threat to the future of his community would be diminished. But unfortunately Christians' persecution has continued to grow. Incidents like Shanti Nagar and Naimat Ahmer's murder in broad day light upset him, and 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. He decided to make 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?
It has been 16 years since Bishop John Joseph left us, but he continues to inspire us even today. He was the symbol of peace and justice, and played a prophetic role for the Christian community. He is an example to many, especially those working to protect Christian minorities and their rights, so Christians can live in Pakistan with honour an dignity. Shahbaz Bhatti was one of those who followed in his footsteps and he also gave his life for his people and there are many waiting their turn.
Bishop Joseph dedicated so much of his life to raising awareness of the plight of Christians at a 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. It is still difficult to speak about and demand changes to the blasphemy laws, but after so many personal sacrifices, the international community is finally taking notice, and apart from top church leadership, American President Barack Obama and the British Prime Minister David Cameron have spoken about the misuse of the blasphemy law and Christians persecution. Although it is very thin, there is a ray of hope for the Pakistani Christians and I am sure wherever Bishop John Joseph is, he will be looking down and happy to see this progress in the campaign he started.
We have seen, however, that the bloodshed of innocent Christians means nothing to Pakistan's repugnant extremists and the blasphemy laws continue to claim Christian lives to this day. In 2009, eight Christians were burnt alive when Muslims went on the rampage in Gojra. Last year in March an entire Christian town, Badami Bagh in Lahore, was set on fire and last year in September at least 80 people were killed and over hundred were injured. The tyranny of the blasphemy law continues and several innocent people including Asia Bibi, Shafqat and Sawan Masih languish on death row because of blasphemy charges brought against them, while two ministers, Shahbaz Bhatti and Salman Taseer – have been 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 into taking 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. 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 and Pakistani Christians across the world will continue to commemorate the bishop's sacrifice for years to come.