05/10/2012, 00.00
PAKISTAN

Faisalabad remembers Bishop John Joseph, "martyr" of the blasphemy law

A religious ceremony was held to mark the 14th anniversary of the prelate's death. He has become a symbol of peace and justice, playing a prophetic role for Pakistan's Christian community.

Faisalabad (AsiaNews) - Bishop John Joseph's contribution in the areas of religion, human rights, peace and coexistence was recently remembered in Faisalabad cathedral, 14 years after his death. More than 600 people attended the ceremony: priests, nuns, catechists, educators, student, social workers, political workers and representatives of civil society organisations.

Mgr John Joseph, bishop of Faisalabad, was closely involved in human and religious rights. He had been fighting religious intolerance, especially discriminatory election laws and the blasphemy legislation, for many years.

In order to highlight his arguments and bring injustice to the attention of the world, he committed suicide on 6 May in a court in Sahiwal, where a Catholic man, Ayub Masih, had been convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to death.

Although the bishop took his own life (he had been suffering from depression for some time), he is a martyr of the faith for many Pakistani Christians.

Beside prayers for the soul of the late prelate, the memorial Mass in Mgr John Joseph's honour included speeches, poetry readings and religious chants. All those present said they would continue the mission of the "martyr bishop" under the supervision of Fr Khalid Rashid Asi, vicar general of the diocese.

"Bishop John Joseph had leadership and communication skills," Fr Samuel George said. "He knew the art of how to mobilise and motivate people. 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 crucible and suffering, as a good shepherd does for his sheep. He had deep feelings in his heart for the poor and marginalised groups, and was always ready to take away their sufferings."

"Commemorating the 14th death anniversary of martyr bishop is the proof that people still love him as a true and sincere leader," Fr Khalid Rashid Asi told AsiaNews. "He was the symbol of peace and justice, and he played a prophetic role for the Christian community. Bishop John Joseph was an expert in promoting interfaith dialogue, and introduced the term of interfaith dialogue in Faisalabad Diocese after Pope John Paul II. We learn from his martyrdom how we can raise our voice against cruelty, injustice and violence."

Speaking to AsiaNews, Fr Nisar Barkat, diocesan director of National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) said, "We cherish the memories of the martyr bishop for his great contribution towards human rights, peace-building, co-existence and harmony. He is remembered as a bridge creating spaces for different communities to interact with each other peacefully. He used to provide a platform for people from different backgrounds to seek ways to lead their lives as a good neighbour. He formed the NCJP in 1985 in order to struggle for justice and peace, and we are still determined to carry on his mission towards protecting the rights of religious minorities in Pakistan."

"Bishop John Joseph was not only a religious leader, but a social and political leader as well," said Christian parliamentarian Joel Amir Sahotra. "He had a firm grasp of religious, social and political affairs, and had the wisdom to solve all problems. His sacrifice left a leadership gap within Christian community which can never be filled because his capabilities were matchless and unbeatable."

At the end of the ceremony, all the participants visited Bishop John Joseph's final resting place. They lit candles and laid a floral wreath on his grave to pay tribute to and show respect for the great leader. They also offered special prayers for the solidarity, progress and prosperity of the country and the welfare of the people in general and religious minorities in particular.

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