Muslim leaders remember Bishop Joseph, a prophet against the abusive use of the blasphemy law
by Kamran Chaudhry

On the 18th anniversary of the bishop of Faisalabad’s death, Muslims remember him as a great fighter “against atrocities”, as well as an advocate for human rights and “interfaith harmony”. For Muslim activist, he was “like a beacon” who saw “the beginning of the downfall”. Only by changing the blasphemy laws can the nation unite.

Lahore (AsiaNews) – Mgr John Joseph, bishop of Faisalabad, was a visionary leader who saw future crises, fought atrocities and promoted interfaith harmony, this according to Muslim leaders and activists.

The prelate was a true leader who opposed religious fundamentalism and discrimination against Christians. Suffering from depression, he took his own life on 6 May 1998 in front of the courthouse in Sahiwal after a Christian, Ayub Masih, was sentenced to death for blasphemy.

On the 18th anniversary of his death, Muslim leaders joined the Catholic community in remembering "the people’s bishop".

“He was like a beacon that sent strong signal about what would happen in wake of the vigilante justice the state had created,” said Irfan Mufti, director of South Asia Partnership Pakistan, an NGO. “It was the beginning of the downfall and then we touched rock bottom. The visionary leader knew these difficulties beforehand.”

The day when Mgr Joseph died, Mufti was attending a peace conference. "After hearing about the tragedy, we discussed how the situation would become ugly. We felt his pain and we stood with his cause and movement.”

More importantly, “He reminded us to respect, honour and protect all citizens irrespective of their faith. There is no other way but to change the blasphemy laws and unite the whole nation”.

Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) General Secretary I A Rehman also praised the first Catholic bishop from Punjab. The prelate “was a committed man who was ready to fight against every atrocity. He had promised a poor Christian to save him from injustice and kept his promise. Human rights workers will remember him forever”, he said. 

In 1986, then Pakistani military strongman General Zia ul Haq pushed through blasphemy legislation that imposed the death penalty on people convicted of insulting Muhammad and the Qur’an. Since then, the law has been used abusively to get rid of enemies or seize property of the accused.

So far, about 1,400 people have been charged under the blasphemy provisions. According to the HRCP’s annual report, at least 22 people were charged with blasphemy in 2015: 15 Muslims, 4 Christians and 3 Ahmadis.

Pakistan’s Muslim clergy, the ulema, are opposed to abolishing or changing the law. Nevertheless, they want it to be enforced appropriately.

“Seventy-five per cent of blasphemy cases are against Muslims,” said Sohail Ahmad Raza, director of Interfaith relations at Minhaj-ul-Quran International. Yet, “the law is not against religious minorities”.

“Bishop Joseph died fighting for the rights of people,” Raza noted. “We do not see such sincere leaders anymore.”