In February 1997, Shanti Nagar, a predominantly Christian hamlet in Pakistan’s Punjab province, was burned down by a mob after a few villagers were accused of blasphemy. It was subsequently revealed that the mob had been instigated by the local police who had a stone to grind with the accused men.
In many ways, Shanti Nagar was the model for what happened in Sanga Hill in 2005, Gojra in 2009 and Lahore’s Badami Bagh in 2013. In all of these places, entire communities were similarly destroyed over allegations of blasphemy.
The communal violence sparked international outrage. Crucially, it was also denounced by some prominent voices within Pakistan, often at risk to their lives. The remarkable Bishop John Joseph was one of them.
Born in 1932 to a Punjabi Catholic family, he made history by becoming the “first native bishop” of Pakistan. He played a key role in changing the perception of Christianity as a colonial religion. Indeed, it can be argued that it was through people like Joseph that Christianity found its roots in South Asia.
He dedicated his life to social organisation and political activism at a time when Pakistan was changing drastically. Zia-ul-Haq’s Islamisation project had started to alter the very fabric of the society in the 1980s, with religious groups gaining such power they were openly challenging the state’s writ.
It was in this fraught situation that the colonial blasphemy law was made stringent. Then, in 1990, blasphemy was made punishable by death at the instance of the Federal Shariat Court, set up under Zia-ul-Haq to oversee the Islamisation of Pakistan’s laws. The court still exists.
As the law became more stringent, more cases of blasphemy began to be reported. A prominent case involved Salamat Masih, 11 years old, and his uncles Manzoor Masih and Rehmat Masih. They were accused of writing blasphemous remarks on the wall of a mosque in 1993. As some religious groups demanded the death penalty for the “culprits”, Joseph came out in support of the accused. By thus raising the profile of the case, he put it in international limelight and added pressure on the state to be impartial. But, unfortunately, it also increased the backlash against the accused and Joseph himself. In 1994, as Salamat, Manzoor and Rehmat were leaving a court, they were shot at. Manzoor Masih was killed, Salamat Masih and Rehmat Masih were injured.
Manzoor Masih’s murder hurt Joseph deeply and he vowed not to let anyone accused of blasphemy be killed for as long as he lived.
Salamat Masih and Rehmat Masih were sentenced to death in early 1995, but their conviction was quickly overturned by the Lahore High Court. In 1997, Arif Iqbal Bhatti, one of the two judges who had acquitted them, was gunned down in his chamber. Fourteen years later, Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab, would be assassinated for coming out in support of Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman accused of blasphemy.
Sacrificing his life
A few months after Bhatti’s assassination, Joseph took up the cause of Ayub Masih, a young Christian man accused of blasphemy against Islam. The bishop maintained Ayub Masih had been wrongly accused by a neighbour who wanted to steal his property. But a civil court in Sahiwal, Punjab, found Ayub Masih guilty and, a few days after Easter Sunday in 1998, sentenced him to death.
On May 6, Joseph, determined to keep his vow, went to the Sahiwal court and took his life in protest against not only the judgement but also the law. His suicide note read: “I shall count myself extremely fortunate if in this mission of breaking the barriers, our Lord accepts the sacrifice of my blood for the benefit of his people.”
The symbolism of Joseph’s sacrifice was not lost on Pakistan’s Christian community, which regarded him highly. It was the ultimate sacrifice, not unlike Jesus Christ’s, for his community. The bishop’s suicide brought global scrutiny to bear on Ayub Masih’s case, ultimately leading to his acquittal by the Supreme Court in 2002. While Ayub Masih eventually found justice, many others continue to struggle for it. As such, the cause for which Joseph sacrificed his life is alive, and even more pressing today.
Haroon Khalid is the author of four books, including Imagining Lahore and Walking with Nanak.