05/04/2023, 13.30
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In the name of Bishop Jospeh, the Christians' battle against blasphemy abuse

by Shafique Khokhar

Twenty-five years after his death, the memory of the bishop of Faisalabad who made an extreme gesture in protest against the violence linked to the controversial law. For many still today he is a martyr of the faith. Since 1987 more than two thousand people have been falsely accused, at least 88 extrajudicial murders. Among the proposals is a commission on the Gojra massacres in 2009.

Lahore (AsiaNews) - 25 years after his death Pakistani Christians yesterday recalled the sacrifice of the then Bishop of Faisalabad John Joseph in the fight against abuses linked to the blasphemy laws with a conference entitled "Aspiration for an inclusive society".

A leading figure in the Pakistani Church, he is still remembered today for his work for justice, peace and interfaith harmony in a nation often the scene of violence and attacks against minorities.

The meeting was held at the Centre for Social Justice (Csj) in Lahore and was attended by experts, activists and scholars who pointed out that, after some time, nothing has been done at the legislative level to counter its misuse. 

Despite the introduction of a couple of amendments in 2004 and 2017 by the Islamabad Parliament, the abuses have continued and the perpetrators - even in cases of extrajudicial killings - have most often benefited from a general climate of impunity.

According to data collected by the Centre for Social Justice, at least 2120 people suffered from false accusations, trials and abuses between 1987 (the year the rule was introduced) and 2022, while 88 people on trial were killed by fanatics or in arbitrary acts.

Among the collateral victims of the blasphemy laws, which punish those who desecrate the Koran or profane the name of the Prophet Muhammad (Art. 295 B and C of the Penal Code), is Msgr. John Joseph.

He was a committed personality in the field of human and religious rights and had long fought against fundamentalism and intolerance, especially against discriminatory electoral and blasphemy laws. In order to give more strength to his struggle and to draw the world's attention to these injustices, on 6 May 1998 he committed suicide at the entrance of the Sahiwal court (in the Punjab), where the trial of Ayub Masih, a Catholic who was sentenced to death and accused of blasphemy, was taking place. Although the bishop committed suicide (he had been suffering from depression for some time), many within the Pakistani Christian community consider him a martyr of the faith. 

Among the speakers at the conference was Peter Jacob, chairman of the People's Commission for Minority Rights (Pcmr), who emphasised the bishop's "farsightedness" as one of the first to denounce abuses related to the law. Wajahat Masood, leader of the Centre for Social Justice recalls the "politically motivated" violations and campaigns of violence to "influence" the decisions of the ruling class. Nevertheless, the state remains 'insensitive' and society largely 'unaware' of the cost 'of such a distorted policy'.

Majid Abel extols the 'tireless efforts' to build an 'inclusive and tolerant society' that knows how to defend 'the rights of religious communities' including minorities. Mgr Sebastian Shaw assures us of his commitment to "carry on his memory and his battles", while Fr Khalid Rashid Asi recalls how even today the courts still issue verdicts that do not do justice to the victims or those indicted for blasphemy. Lastly, Professor Anjum James Paul points out the 'problematic' element inherent in assigning a 'religious identity' to the State and the too much given to religious groups to 'influence the government'.

At the end of the meeting, the initiators made some proposals to counter the abuses: amend some constitutional passages that are incompatible with basic rights; set up a commission of enquiry into the Gojra massacres in 2009 to prevent further similar cases; introduce the criminal offence of forced conversion; improve the draft law on the National Commission for Minorities; and counter fundamentalism right from the schools.

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