05/16/2016, 14.50
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Bishop John Joseph's sacrifice "opened up debate on the blasphemy law"

by Kamran Chaudhry

The Catholic Church commemorates the 18th anniversary of his "martyrdom for the faith." The Bishop’s niece declares that her uncle’s act stirred consciences at home and abroad. The law that punishes offenses against the prophet and the Koran with death was passed in 1986. Since then, 1,400 convicted persons.

Lahore (AsiaNews) - The extreme action of Msgr. John Joseph, Bishop of Faisalabad who took his own life at the entrance of the court of Sahiwal, has sparked debate on the controversial blasphemy law in Pakistan, says Sabina Riffat, niece of the deceased Bishop, marking the 18th anniversary of the death of her uncle, who is remembered as the "bishop of the people, the voice of the marginalized."

Msgr. John Joseph, Bishop of Faisalabad, was very active in the field of human and religious rights and fighting against fundamentalism and religious intolerance, particularly the discriminatory electoral laws and those on blasphemy. To give more strength to his struggle and call the world's attention to these injustices, on 6 May 1998 he committed suicide at the entrance to Sahiwal court, where a trial was being held against Ayyub Masih, a Catholic who was sentenced to death, accused of blasphemy.

Although the bishop committed suicide (he suffered from severe depression at the time), for many of Pakistan's Christian community he is actually a martyr of the faith.

Every year on 6 May hundreds of people, commemorate the day of his death. Fr. Francis Gulzar, vicar general of the Archdiocese of Lahore, presided over the Mass for the repose of the Bishop in elementary school Youhanabad named after Msgr. Joseph.

His niece said: "His supreme sacrifice sparked the discussion on the abuse of the law, both nationally and internationally. He has raised the awareness of the need for absolution for most of the people who are falsely accused in these cases. Msgr. Joseph left the comfortable life and the comfort of the lounges to spend the last years of his life in prison visiting Christian families ".

Riffat, who at the time of her uncle's suicide was a nun, declares that "His martyrdom has caused a revolution in my life. In 2006 I left the convent, because it was hard work to improve the conditions of marginalized subjected to rules and regulations. Now I can devote more time to activism. "

She is the author of five books and is pursuing the mission of her uncle as a coordinator of the women's wing of the United Religious Initiative Pakistan. In this organization, Riffat organizes courses on peace and sewing classes for unskilled women; she also directs therapeutic treatments for women presenting trauma related to their arrest for blasphemy cases.

The blasphemy law was introduced in the Constitution of Pakistan in 1986 by dictator Gen. Zia ul Haq, and imposes the death penalty for those who are accused of an offense against Muhammad and the Koran. But the law is abused to eliminate enemies or seize the property of the accused. To date, about 1,400 people have been accused of blasphemy. The courts, however, despite numerous rulings, have never executed the death sentences against the blasphemous: the accused are usually eliminated in extrajudicial killings or in prison, or perish from police violence.

Saeeda Deep, founder of the Institute of Peace and Secular Studies, complains: "Zia ul Haq was not a religious expert, so civil governments should have eliminated the norm in subsequent years. Now politicians say they wanted to protect Islam, but in doing so they commit violence to silence the most vulnerable religious communities ".

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