The civil society and Christian minority observed May 6 as a day of remembrance of self-sacrifice of Bishop John Joseph on his 24th death anniversary.
The first Punjabi Catholic priest in the country and the first Punjabi Bishop of Diocese of Faisalabad, took his life in protest in front of the court in Sahiwal which had handed death sentence to a young Christian, Ayub Masih, over a blasphemy accusation in 1998.
“Bishop Joseph worked relentlessly for interfaith harmony, peace and justice for two decades. He made a public statement that he was making a sacrifice to bring to attention the ‘stumbling block in the way of interfaith relations’, i.e. misuse of the blasphemy laws. No government made a serious effort to stop the misuse of these laws,” said Peter Jacob, executive director of the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ).
He also emphasised the implementation of the recommendations made by the judicial inquiry after the Gojra incident in 2009, to address the issue of abuse of blasphemy laws.
Pakistan’s leading human rights advocate Saif Ul Malook highlighted the scope of religious freedom in the constitution of Pakistan.
“It’s a big joke. These fundamental rights are neither seen in any court, assembly or office. The ‘Mullah’ (clerics) have become very strong. Nobody is willing to prosecute those killed in the name of religion. The clashes will continue till intolerance remains in society,” he said.
Anglican Church of Pakistan Moderator/President Bishop Dr Azad Marshall remembered meeting Bishop John as a young bishop.
“He always urged me to speak up. We should challenge all laws that pull back our country and present us as an abnormal society in the international community. The silent majority and intelligentsia remain silent on such incidents. Silence is a crime,” he stressed.
They were speaking at the May 6 memorial seminar titled “Religious Intolerance and Its Impact on Human Rights” organised by CSJ in memory of the late bishop. A large number of Christian clergy, civil society activists and journalists joined the seminar in person and virtually.
Other speakers also branded the misuse of the blasphemy law as a weapon of choice for the elements spreading sectarian and religious hatred amongst citizens.
PTI leader and former MNA Shunila Ruth urged the participants to follow the footsteps of the late bishop.
“It’s a challenge for us to continue his mission of human rights and fight against the misuse of the blasphemy laws. Even if the government wants to do something, they are helpless. Our Muslim brothers are also affected by this sword of blasphemy allegations,” she said.
Saroop Ijaz, lawyer and Senior Counsel for Asia, Human Rights Watch, highlighted the discriminatory laws and policies affecting the modern, egalitarian state: equal citizenship.
“This has led to harmful societal attitudes, acceptance of religious intolerance by government institutions, the use of religious and exclusionary language in public spaces, including by political parties and government institutions. The introduction of the Single National Curriculum is another example,” he said.
Wajahat Masood, senior journalist and human rights activist, said that May 6 is the day of grief and a perennial sense of waste for our nation.
“New forms of faith-based injustice have emerged, including mob-lynching, forced conversions, displacement, extortion, desecration of places of worship, and kidnapping under the garb of marriage,” he said.
“Staying true to the vow of equal citizenship may perhaps be the best tribute to the sacrifices of the nation’s best sons like Bishop John Joseph, Salmaan Taseer, Shahbaz Bhatti, and hundreds of victims of the blasphemy laws and other forms of religious discrimination.”
Other speakers, including human rights activist Tanveer Jahan, Ahmar Rehman, Dr Kalyan Singh Kalyan, Firdous Kamran, Father James Channan, Father Khalid Rashid Asi and Anglican Bishop of Lahore Irfan Jamil also expressed their concern over the rising intolerance in society and urged the participants to build a tolerant and peaceful country.
Pakistan’s modern blasphemy laws stem from the period of ‘Islamisation’ under military leader General Zia Ul Haq in the 1980s, during which the country adopted many conservative religious laws.
Last month, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) designated Pakistan as a “country of particular concern” due to its worsening religious freedom conditions for Christians and other religious minorities.
According to the data collected by the Centre for Social Justice, at least 1,949 persons have suffered from false allegations, prolonged trials, and displacement from 1985 till December 2021. It added that at least 84 persons had been killed after being suspected or accused under the blasphemy laws, including the lynching of Sri Lankan national Priyantha Kumara in Sialkot that tarnished the image of Pakistan.
Earlier this month, former prime minister and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) chief Imran Khan and other party leaders were booked for blasphemy.
According to the FIR [First Information Report] registered in Faisalabad., the top brass of the PTI was accused of involvement in the incident at Masjid-e-Nabwi [Prophet (PBUH)’s Mosque] in Medina where Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and his cabinet members were ridiculed by some Pakistani pilgrims, drawing strong reactions from Muslims across the globe.
In a letter dated May 2 written to special rapporteurs of the UN, PTI core committee member Shireen Mazari called for their intervention to cease the Pakistani government’s “misuse of the blasphemy law” against former prime minister Imran Khan and senior PTI leaders.