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Shahbaz Bhatti is not the only martyr in the struggle against Pakistan’s blasphemy laws

In 1998 Bishop John Joseph committed suicide in protest at the terrible laws. Thirteen years on, the government still buries its head in the sand

By on Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Pakistani Christians clash with the police following the protest suicide of Bishop John Joseph (AP Photo)

Pakistani Christians clash with the police following the protest suicide of Bishop John Joseph (AP Photo)

Blasphemy laws in Pakistan have become untouchable. Even talking about changes to these laws, which have a mandatory death penalty, has been prohibited and those who dare to do so can suffer terrible consequences, as the murders of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer and Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti have demonstrated.

Christians have long been demanding the repeal of these laws, which are used as a tool by extremists and even some more “moderate” Muslims to settle personal grudges or seize the possessions of Christians. All minorities have been affected but Christians continue to be the main target. Innocent Christians have been killed in broad daylight, some burnt alive. Churches have been attacked and Christian villages have been burnt to ashes.

The laws were introduced in 1860 to protect all religions and places of worship but, ever since amendments were introduced in 1986, they have come to protect mainly the Koran and the sacred name of the Prophet Mohammad. Those punished under the laws continue to be non-Muslims, Christians especially.

One of the worst ever attacks against the Christian community occurred in August 2009, when eight Christians were burnt alive in Gojra. The reason was no more than the rumour that a Koran had been desecrated by a Christian.

After the attack, the judicial commission headed by Lahore High Court judge, Iqbal Hameed ur Rehman, warned that the Gojra tragedy “must be taken seriously” and that the necessary steps had to be taken to prevent such attacks in the future. Nothing was done, however, and that has remained the case until today. Now the Christian community is grieving the cold-hearted murder of its only voice in Parliament.

The killing of Shahbaz Bhatti is a tragic reminder of the suicide protest of Catholic Bishop, John Joseph. He campaigned tirelessly against the blasphemy laws and, after the murders of two Christians, Naimat Ahmer and Manzoor Masih, the bishop vowed that no other Christian would be killed because of the blasphemy laws during his lifetime. When Ayub Masih, a Christian, was sentenced to death for blasphemy in 1998, Bishop Joseph shot himself outside the court where the sentence had been passed. It was his hope that this final act would bring the world’s attention to the terrible blasphemy laws and the immense suffering they continue to cause for Pakistan’s Christians.

His death shocked the Christian community but his sacrifice has never been forgotten and, seven years after the bishop’s death, Masih was freed by the supreme court of Pakistan and taken to a safe place by CLAAS.

The struggle the bishop began against the blasphemy laws was continued by Shahbaz Bhatti, who came from the same village of Khushpur in Punjab. He was no doubt inspired by the fearless commitment of Bishop Joseph and now both have become martyrs and heroes of the Christian community.

The universal condemnation of Bhatti’s murder has undoubtedly sent a strong message to the government that its neglect of human rights is unacceptable, but whether it takes on board that message is another question altogether. On February 2, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilliani signalled his capitulation before the religious bloc in the Parliament when he made it clear that the government would not make any changes to the blasphemy laws.

Still the government buries its head in the sand and continues to ignore this issue because it is more concerned with appeasing extremists than safeguarding the lives of its people, the basic task of any government. It ignores the cries of the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and world leaders, and Christians continue to be attacked and killed in broad daylight, their villages sacked and burnt to the ground, and their churches desecrated. Even after the death of Shahbaz Bhatti the persecution of Christians has continued: since then at least four Christians have been allegedly accused of blasphemy, two Christians have been murdered and two churches have been attacked. However, this is not the end; instead it is going to continue and may get worse, as incidents like the burning of the Koran and the ban on the burqa has infuriated Muslims, especially in Pakistan.

Surely, after the deaths of so many people, the government can find the courage to do what is right. At the very least, that means removing the mandatory death penalty for blasphemy.

If the government fails to act, there will still be brave people who are willing to stick their heads above the parapet and campaign for change, but it would be so much better if the government were to make the changes now, instead of letting more people get killed.

It may be easy for Christians to lose hope but they are still looking to the heavens for that miracle to come. Shahbaz Bhatti and Bishop John Joseph have both given their lives for a just and peaceful future for Pakistan’s Christians and we must continue with the same courage and dedication.

  • Jimmy O.

    Christian martyrs don’t commit suicide. Bishop John Joseph – in abandoning his flock, shedding his own blood, and violating the fifth commandment – is neither a martyr nor a hero. Let’s pray that between his pulling the trigger and leaving this world, God granted him the grace of repentance for his murderous act.

  • http://my.firedoglake.com/members/breaker581/profile/ John in Sacramento

    Seek help.

  • Joel Pinheiro

    Sad to read about the bishop’s suicide. Despite his wrong decision, however, he is still an example of virtue, like the maidens who committed suicide in order to avoid being raped and who were considered saints, to the puzzlement of St. Augustine. That doesn’t make suicide right, though; only understandable given the circumstances.

    Let’s pray for a change in Pakistan!

  • jdh

    This article is depraved.

  • Anonymous

    What on earth do you mean?

  • Ratbag

    How is the article depraved? Explain yourself. Go on. If you think you’re smart enough.

  • Ratbag

    The persecution of Christians is not confined to Pakistan, as we know.

    When the Western media does not report it as widely as other injustices in the world, how on earth can change happen when others are not aware of what is going on with their brothers and sisters in Christ?

    All the Western media is interested in is reporting what’s wrong with the Church – seldom what is right about us and the struggles and persecutions people go through just to attend Mass in peace and tranquility.

    That’s why Aid To The Church In Need is so relevant and valuable to us and it is crucial we support their work and that our parishes should hold collections for them as regularly as for the Saint Vincent de Paul.

  • Peter

    Gujranwala: April 16, 2011, (PCTV News desk)
    Farrukh Mushtaq Gill and his father Mushtaq Gill, have been arrested for Blasphemy Friday evening from their residence in Gujaranwala. Farrukh is being charged with burning a Quran.
    The father of the accused Mushtaq Gill, is an Elder of Presbyterian Church and a teacher at the Christian Technical Training Center in Guranjawala. Farrukh is employed at National Bank of Pakistan. This incident reports back to 2-3 months ago when someone charged Farrukh with desecrating the Quran however the Police did not proceed with the case.
    Yesterday in a preplanned move a mob consisting of several clerics and locals pressured the police to arrest both the father and the son, seeing the present situation the police had no other option but to arrest the two men to control and please the mob, Police then assigned several officers in front of Gill’s residence and on the roof-top as well to avoid any attacks. Christians residing in Gulzar Colony had moved to their relatives or friends houses in fear of being targeted by angry mobs.
    One of the residents said “This must be the lamest excuse in Pakistan that a Christian has burnt a Quran, the lawmakers and everyone else too knows it’s a fabricated case and no Christian in Pakistan would do this but officials are either bribed or threatened by clerics backed by extremists”
    Farrukh Gill was instructed by Church officials in the last incident to resign and search for another job as it could be possible someone was discriminating and targeting him as he was the only Christian employed there. Farrukh reported he has no enmity with anyone but many colleagues were not in favour of a Christian in their midst. However Farrukh had thought the problem was now over.
    Yesterday rumors arose of an attack at Christian technical training center but the situation has been calm in the city since yesterday and all reports of attacks have been dismissed as false. Apparently it is claimed some mosques announced the incident and gathered more people however a few Christians claim they heard no such announcements in the area that they reside. Friday is an important prayer for Muslims and it is then that they have the most number of attendees.
    The reason behind the false charges against Farrukh are still unknown and whether he is being framed due to discrimination or professional jealousy is unclear, however there seems to be no other motive at present.
    Recently the blasphemy cases against Christians are on the rise with Arif Masih of a village near Chak Jhumra, Faisalabad being arrested last week in a fabricated case for property. Most are accused under the controversial blasphemy law of Pakistan for which Christians and many Muslims have protested against, Salman Taseer the outspoken brave Governor of Punjab was assassinated a few months ago over his support of the release of Aasia Bibi an accused of the Blasphemy case.
    Following Taseer was the assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian who held the position of Minorities minister and was in support of repealing the Blasphemy law.
    The 295-c law has many Christians as well as muslims arrested under false cases for personal grudges or enmity and even professional jealously, usually there is no procedural inquiry and without lack of evidence and statements of a few clerics or persons an FIR is registered.
    In 2010 the Rashid brothers from Faisalabad, the country’s third-largest city were released without lack of evidence by the court. Both brothers had been charged under the blasphemy law for distributing anti-Islam material, Rashid and Sajid Emmanuel were both shot by unknown assailants outside courtroom.
    The hatred in Pakistan has gradually increased against Christians due to the ignorant actions of Florida’s Pastor Terry Jones who burned the Quran and planned the ‘Burn a Koran day”, Several Church officials had condemned his un-Christian actions and demanded his removal by the Church of America.

  • Nazirbhattipcc

    Bishop John Joseph not committed suicide but he was assassinated be Pakistani agencies: The Catholiv Church of Pakistan turned sacrifice of Bishop Joesph in suicide under pressure of government of Pakistan. Martyred Bishop was forceful voice against Blasphemy laws in Pakistan: