05/06/2006, 00.00
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Mgr John Joseph, blasphemy martyr, remembered

by Qaiser Felix

On the eighth anniversary of the bishop's death, his sacrifice is being recalled across the country and once again, there are calls for abolition of this unjust and abused law.

Faisalabad (AsiaNews) – Bishop John Joseph, who committed suicide in 1998 to protest the blasphemy law, was recalled today in a mass in the Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul in Faisalabad. Mgr Andrew Francis of Multan and Mgr Joseph Coutts of Faisalabad participated in the celebration, together with dozens of priests. In his homily, the bishop of Multan described Mgr Joseph as a "perennial voice of ecumenical and inter-faith dialogue", who "preached the words of the Gospel with all his life".

Mgr John Joseph, bishop of Faisalabad, was a man who was deeply involved in the field of human rights, especially religious freedom and he fought long and hard against fundamentalism and religious intolerance, especially discriminatory electoral laws and the blasphemy law. To make his struggle more forceful, and to draw the world's attention to these injustices, he killed himself on 6 May 1998 at the entrance of the court of Sahiwal, where the trial of Ayub Masih was held, a Catholic who was accused of blasphemy and condemned to death.

Although the bishop committed suicide (he had suffered from strong depression for a long time), for many members of the Pakistani Christian community, he is truly a martyr for the faith. Mgr Francis said Mgr John Joseph lived "according to the words of Mahatma Gandhi: 'We must be the change, we wish to see in the world' and he sacrificed his life for his poor people."

Relatives of the deceased bishop attended the ceremony. After the mass, all went to bless the tomb of Mgr John Joseph, buried near the cathedral, throwing flower petals on the tombstone.

Last night, at least 2,000 people gathered in Khushpur, the village where the bishop was born, to mark the eighth anniversary of his death. The meeting was organized by the John Joseph Shaheed ("martyr") Trust, led by his nephew, Johnson Michael.

He told AsiaNews: "The association was set up to continue the fight of Mgr Joseph against discriminatory laws and for the promotion of social harmony."

In many cities in Pakistan, events are being organised to remember the deceased bishop and to call for elimination of the blasphemy law.

The blasphemy law was introduced in Pakistan in 1986 and provides for death for those who are accused of offending the prophet Muhammad. However, the law is abused to do away with one's enemies or to seize the property of those accused. From 1986 to 2004, more than 4,000 cases of blasphemy were reported. Of these, 560 people were charged, another 30 are awaiting judgment. But meanwhile, dozens of Christians have been killed for defaming Islam. Very often, Islamic extremists try to kill the accused out of religious fanaticism, before he is tried. Threats and killings are also meted out to judges who appear impartial. "This law is a Damocles sword hanging over the head of non-Muslims and Muslims with a modern mentality. Among the many people killed because of this law, there is the Muslim judge Arif Iqbal Bhatti, who acquitted two Christians falsely accused of blasphemy and was later murdered by Muslim extremists in 1996."

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