Portrait Of Resilience: The Legacy Of Bishop John Joseph

"His final utterance, resonating within the courthouse compound, echoed the notes of peace and triumph. The verdict that precipitated Bishop John Joseph's demise was overturned by the court in 2002"

Portrait Of Resilience: The Legacy Of Bishop John Joseph

In the annals chronicling the history of minorities in Pakistan, an extraordinary chapter stands out, penned with the ink of blood itself, under the title "Don't be afraid to speak – Bishop John Joseph." These four profound words encapsulated the essence of Bishop John Joseph's character. A leader of impeccable spiritual dedication and fervent advocacy, he became a beacon of resistance and hope for many.

John Joseph, born on 15 March 1932 in Khushpur, a village renowned for its significant Christian community nestled in the heart of Punjab, embarked on his journey ordained as a priest in 1960. Over the following years, he emerged as a crucial figure within the Catholic Church in Pakistan. Rising to the esteemed position of Bishop of Faisalabad in 1984, his tenure became synonymous with robust advocacy for religious minorities, particularly Christians, facing persecution under Pakistan's controversial blasphemy laws. Bishop Joseph's scholarly pursuits culminated in a doctorate in canon law from the Pontifical Urban University in Rome, enhancing his ability to combat legal and social injustices effectively. Beyond the confines of the pulpit, his leadership extended into the realm of social activism, where he collaborated frequently with religious and secular leaders to foster interfaith harmony and social justice.

The tapestry of minorities’ history in Pakistan has been woven with threads of unwavering steadfastness and struggles. Yet, this portrait of resilience, though present, remains obscured from Pakistan's historical narrative. Over time, this rare depiction, brushed with lucidly bright shades of struggle, faded from view.

It begins with the steadfast determination of minority members in Pakistan's constituent assembly in 1949, who dared to raise their voices against the Objectives Resolution, despite the looming spectre of rejection. This laid the groundwork for future generations. The seed of resilience sown during the nation's infancy took root and bore remarkable fruit, eventually coming to be embodied in the figure of Bishop John Joseph.

Rather than succumbing to intimidation and oppression, Bishop John Joseph catalysed the notion of raising one's voice, advocating for peaceful protests and direct diplomacy. Endowed with the ability to vehemently denounce injustice, he fearlessly confronted inequity and discrimination. Bishop John Joseph's fervent approach to addressing legal and social breaches left an indelible legacy. 

His final act of advocacy was for Ayub Masih in 1998, who stood accused of blasphemy and violating section 295C of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC). Bishop John Joseph steadfastly maintained Masih's innocence until the court pronounced the verdict of his execution.

Ayub Masih found himself unjustly accused, and Bishop John Joseph spared no effort in presenting a compelling case to secure justice and protection for the oppressed victim. Nonetheless, the verdict handed down for Ayub Masih between 1996 and 1998 was death by execution. On 6 May 1998, Bishop John Joseph took a stand at the Sahiwal courthouse, where the sentence had been pronounced, and, in protest, took his own life within the compound. At 66 years old, the Bishop had long campaigned against the misuse of blasphemy laws, advocating tirelessly for preventing the victimisation of minorities. In a missive penned shortly before his demise, he implored Christians and Muslims to unite in lifting Ayub Masih's death sentence and ending the misuse of blasphemy laws. His parting words encapsulated a spirit of dedication, asserting that "dedicated persons do not count the cost of the sacrifices they have to offer."

His final utterance, resonating within the courthouse compound, echoed the notes of peace and triumph. "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," he declared, leaving behind a profound void. Bishop John Joseph's act of sacrifice was a protest not only against the verdict but also against a law that served to persecute minorities.

Perhaps the echoes of Bishop John Joseph's final words still linger in the hearts of millions. Yet, the injustice that brought about his sacrifice remains in place today, evidenced by at least 1,885 cases of violations of section 295C of the Pakistan Penal Code. 

Nevertheless, the specific verdict that precipitated Bishop John Joseph's demise was overturned by the court in 2002. The act of suicide is frowned upon, particularly within Catholic circles, yet Bishop John Joseph's willingness to embrace it in service of the Christian community underscores his unwavering dedication. 

The ongoing prevalence of blasphemy cases serves as a stark reminder of the absence of leaders like Bishop John Joseph in our society. The blood that was shed at the Sahiwal Courthouse for the cause of justice 26 years ago still mourns for the persecuted members of Pakistan's minority communities.