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Bishop John Joseph

Bishop John Joseph

It is the 20th martyrdom anniversary of a great fighter against religious persecution, Bishop John Joseph of Faisalabad. His self-sacrifice represents one of the rarest examples in the subcontinent when a priest instead of leading a mob of religious bigots sacrificed his life in protest against constant persecution of minorities specially Christians in Pakistan.

Dr John Joseph’s martyrdom would have gone unnoticed, had he not written an open letter to his friends across the world, six days before sacrificing his life at the altar of bigotry being indulged in the name of Islam in Pakistan. Unfortunately, this letter, blood chilling as well as full of resolve, reached the addressees after he had sacrificed his life in protest. The State and Islamists in Pakistan made fun of his sacrifice by describing it as suicide and cowardice forgetting that sacrificing oneself against brute power is part of a revolutionary resistance in world history. Hundreds of Communists and Buddhists monks sacrificed their lives in protest against US occupation of Vietnam. Similarly, many women activists in Iran sacrificed their lives publicly against repression of women there.  

Why Bishop Sacrificed His Life

He shot himself to death on May 6, 1998, while leading a protest march against Blasphemy Laws in the Sahiwal ( Montgomery) town of Pakistan. In fact, during this time, the Bishop was supposed to be in Rome, attending a seminar of the Asian Catholic Churches. However, in the last week of April 1998, due to two new Christian victims of the Blasphemy Law, he decided to stay back. Instead, he wrote the letter which he titled, “The challenge of religious fundamentalism and violence to social harmony”. The letter read, “I have been looking forward to the seminar, with great eagerness. But the circumstances have robbed me of this joy. A Christian, Anwar Masih, accused of blasphemy was released by court but a Muslim terrorist group, Sipah-e-Saheba, has announced that they will kill him (they had originally brought the charges against him). I have to hide him, till we find a safe place, somewhere in the world, for him and for his wife and children.”

On April 27, Ayub Masih, was condemned to “hang by neck till death” and a fine of Rs one hundred thousand, because in a discussion with a Muslim “friend” he is supposed to have said, “if you read Salman Rushdie's book, you will come to know the true face of Islam”. In fact, the blasphemy case was allegedly framed against Ayub Masih due to a land dispute between Christian families and Muslim landlord in his village. The Bishop's letter seems to be a well-researched paper on religious sectarianism in Pakistan.

Roots of Islamist Bigotry and Its Nature

The issues which he raised in it were of significance not only for Pakistan, but also for India, where we witnessed and are witnessing all-out attacks on democratic-secular polity and ethos, minorities, women and Dalits by the RSS/BJP rulers and their affiliated gangs. According to him, the main characteristics of religious fundamentalism are; rejection of rationality, human co-existence, and the absolute belief that only one particular sect or group is on the divine path. The Bishop also finds that the fundamentalists have an unending supply of cadres because they control most of the schools in Pakistan. “The Government closes its eyes to schools where male children are taken from age five and are trained in religious hatred and handling weapons.” He quoted Asma Jehangir, one of the greatest fighters for the rights of women, minorities and working class in Pakistan who died recently, the lawyer who had been defending most of the blasphemy law victims. According to Asma “Islamic fundamentalists are nothing more than ruthless violent power mongers. They know that there is a fear of modernization here among many devout people, and fear of secularism and they exploit their sentiments to add to their ranks.”

Bishop Joseph tried to trace the roots of the phenomena of Islamic fundamentalism when he wrote, “the world of Islam looks back nostalgically at the Middle Ages when its religion and culture seemed like identical twins, and Christian West studied at its feet. It senses with frustration that Western ideals of nationalism, socialism or capitalism, introduced into modern Muslim societies, have offered no true solutions to the manifold problems Islam faces in the technological world. With the slogan 'Islam is the solution' the fundamentalists pin their hopes on the utopia of a return to an idealised early Muslim community.”

Minorities Are Not the Only Victims of Religious Bigotry

In his letter, the Bishop also highlighted the fact that under fundamentalism, it is not the minorities alone that suffer, but also women and secular elements, even though following the same religion. “The first victims of the fundamentalist parties are the religious minorities. They direct their full wrath on these minorities and depict them as dangerous to society and country. The second victims are women. They believe women are inferior to men, root of evil, weak and stupid.”

“The third victims are those people who have secular, liberal and enlightened outlook, specially the intellectuals and human rights activists.”

He also wrote, “Under the fundamentalist influence publication of religious books increases and secular literature rapidly decreases. It also greatly affects music, painting, sculpture, and dancing, and also as a whole, the society loses its glamour, and violence and dullness reign supreme.” It seemed as if Bishop was commenting on the Indian scenario too where Hindutva politics is running amok. Bishop Joseph's letter was important in another sense. He did not believe in responding to communal challenge in the same sectarian way. “We close our eyes and think that the blood thirsty cult of religious violence will go away by itself. No, each one of us has to get involved and play our role…our answer to violence must be inter-denominational and inter-religious”.

Go To the People

In fact, Bishop John Joseph announced his intention of laying down his life for the cause of secularism in Pakistan. Concluding the letter, he wrote, “At the end, I appeal to all my brothers and sisters in Christ, please let us leave our places and position of safety and comfort and go to the people. 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. This is the only effective response to the ever growing phenomena of violence around us. Are we ready to take up this challenge and follow Him carrying the Cross on our own shoulders?”

Bishop's Sacrifice Has Lessons for India Also

The sacrifice and ideas of Bishop John Joseph are significant in the Indian context also. Interestingly, the forces of Hindutva, who miss no opportunity to decry the Islamic State of Pakistan for attacks on Hindus, remain mum on the incidents of atrocities on Christians and other downtrodden and secular elements in Pakistan. There is nothing unnatural in such a response. The Islamist religious bigots of Pakistan and India are co-criminals, partners in crime who copy each other's models of bigotry, sadist techniques and reckless violence against minorities in the subcontinent. In this scenario, Bishop Joseph does not become martyr of the cause of secularism in Pakistan alone, but of the entire Sub-continent.

(For more of S. Islam's writings in English, Hindi, Marathi, Malayalam, Kannada, Bengali, Punjabi, Urdu & Gujarati see the following link: http://du-in.academia.edu/ShamsulIslam  Email: notoinjustice@gmail.com )

(Published on 07th May 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 19)