On May 6, 1998, John Joseph, Roman Catholic bishop of Faisalabad, Pakistan, was found dead in the compound of a courthouse in the town of Sahiwal.
Bishop John died from a gunshot wound to his head.
Competing narratives still swirl around his death. News reports pointed to a note left at the scene that indicated that Bishop John took his own life to protest Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Scholarly studies, such as the late Linda Walbridge’s “The Christians of Pakistan,” support this interpretation. And the Catholic hierarchy of Pakistan does acknowledge that Bishop John died by his own hand.
But other Pakistanis are not so sure. Nazir Bhatti, a prominent Pakistani Christian activist and editor of The Pakistan Christian Post, wrote to me of his belief that a man of Bishop John Joseph’s stature and conscience could never have committed suicide. And even those Pakistani Christians who believe Bishop John killed himself say that his death should not be considered “suicide” in a conventional sense.
Instead, Bishop John was a martyr.
Regardless of what one believes about the circumstances of his death, there is no doubt that Bishop John Joseph of Faisalabad was an extraordinary figure.
He was the first indigenous Pakistani bishop; he was an activist, committed to the rights of religious minorities in Pakistan; he was a scholar, trained in Rome, and translator of Christian texts and terms into Urdu.
On his death anniversary today, Bishop John’s story merits remembering, along with those of the Pakistani Catholics he served.
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Christians in Pakistan total about 3 million. A number of Protestant churches are represented, but it is clear that the Catholic Church has the greatest visibility and organization.
The majority of Pakistani Catholics are descendants of converts from the Chuhra caste of sweepers who converted to Christianity in the 19th century when the Punjab was under British rule. Sweepers were usually considered to be on the lowest level of South Asian society since they dealt with filth and pollution on a daily basis. Conversion, it was hoped, would bring change in this social status, though for many indigenous Pakistani Christians this low social standing remains unchanged to this day.
Catholicism gained a presence through priests who were sent to minister to Irish soldiers during the time of the British colonial rule. Aggressive missionary work by the Franciscan order consolidated the Catholic community in rural areas in the Punjab, making Christians a well-defined community by the time of Pakistani independence.
Christians — both Catholic and Protestant — have sometimes had important positions in Pakistani society, particularly in the military and judiciary. But the vast majority of Catholic Christians are poor manual laborers who work looms for carpet-making or operate brick kilns. Kiln workers live as virtual slaves since they are “bonded” to repay virtually unpayable debts. Weavers are often no better off, with many working in sweatshop conditions from ages as young as 4. Illiteracy is also quite high among indigenous Pakistani Christians, both Catholic and Protestant.
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John Joseph was born into a Catholic community, in Kushpur, in 1932. He was educated at seminary in Lahore and was ordained a priest in 1960. During Vatican II, he studied for his theology doctorate at St. Thomas University in Rome. After serving as rector of Christ the King seminary in Karachi, John Joseph was ordained bishop of Faisalabad in 1984 — the first Punjabi bishop.
Bishop John quickly assumed a high profile as the “people’s bishop.” His house in Faisalabad was open every Monday and Tuesday for visitors from his diocese — a striking contrast to the behavior of most bishops in South Asia. He led marches for social justice and famously blocked a bulldozer that was about to demolish a shantytown where Christian manual laborers lived. He went on a public hunger strike to protest religious identity cards that he believed subjected minorities such as Christians and Shi’a Muslims to further discrimination. He also took the lead on important scholarly projects, such as translating key Christian concepts and phrases into Urdu.
But while he was known as an activist bishop on a variety of issues, Bishop John become most known for his public opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.
The first anti-blasphemy law actually was enacted under British rule in 1860 — it applied to all religions and carried with it a maximum sentence of two years.
In 1980, the law was expanded under the dictatorship of Muhammad Zia ul-Haq. Article 295 A of the Pakistani Penal Code prohibited the use of derogatory remarks by words or by imputation, innuendo or insinuation, directly or indirectly, about people revered in Islam. To this was later added Article 295 C, which imposed a death sentence for anyone found guilty of defiling the name of the Prophet of Islam.
Once the blasphemy laws were enacted, a number of cases were brought against Christians. The most famous case was in 1993, in the city of Gujranwala, when three Christians were accused of writing defamatory graffiti on the wall of a mosque. They were convicted under the blasphemy laws and sentenced to death. After the three left a courthouse after a hearing, they were fired upon and one, Manzur Masih, was killed.
At Manzur Masih’s funeral, Bishop John kissed Manzur’s Masih’s feet. After doing this, Bishop John Joseph is reported to have said, “Manzur, the next blood to be shed for these laws will be mine.”
For many Pakistani Christians, Bishop John’s words were prophetic. He died at the same courthouse where another Christian, Ayub Masih, had been sentenced to death for blasphemy.
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I lived in Pakistan in the late 1980s and I have very fond memories of my time there. I stayed with a gracious and welcoming family in Karachi, who taught me much about the diversity of Islam and the beauty of Urdu poetry. I had friends and I had fun — I especially enjoyed parties with singing and dancing, and copious amounts of bootleg whiskey and smuggled Scotch. I even had the opportunity to travel in Benazir Bhutto’s retinue, as she was protesting the rule of Muhammad Zia-ul Haq.
I never stopped to think about where the carpets on my bedroom floor came from; I never pondered who made the bricks for the comfortable houses and hotels in which I stayed.
And I never met Bishop John.
I wish I had.
No member of the Catholic clergy — from parish priest to pope — has intrigued or compelled me more.
Suicide, of course, is a mortal sin, something that no Catholic — and certainly no bishop — is allowed to commit. I am therefore sympathetic to Nasir Bhatti’s claim, echoed by so many Pakistanis, that the beloved bishop did not, could not, commit suicide as an act of desperation or despondency.
In his own lifetime, Bishop John was a polarizing figure. Just as he was loved and admired by Punjabi Catholics, he was viewed with suspicion by other priests and higher-status Catholics, those who traced their lineages back to Indian and Portuguese Goa and had established successful economic enclaves and communities in Karachi. For these Catholics, both clergy and laity, Bishop John was a rabble-rouser who was placing the Catholic Church in direct confrontation with some of the most extreme elements in Pakistani society. According to this view, a more cautious, conciliatory approach would have been more successful in protecting the Catholic community’s interests, as well as its safety.
In the years since Bishop John’s death, religious minorities in Pakistan have been subject to ever-increasing violence. Violence against Shia Muslims, for example, is a daily occurrence. The Christian community has seen villages and churches torched, worshipers killed by suicide bombers, and one of its most prominent leaders, Shahbaz Bhatti — a federal minister and a Catholic — assassinated.
If he had lived, Bishop John would have been a powerful opponent of such violence, a bishop cut in the mold that Pope Francis has outlined: a supporter of the poor and outcast; a leader who was not distant, but close and involved. But if Bishop John’s death came too soon, it is clear that for many Pakistani Christians, his life gave meaning and voice to their struggles.
And his witness endures.
Bishop John’s tomb is a pilgrimage site now, where Pakistani Christians light candles and recite the Psalms. Some day, I hope to join them in prayer and song, and return to a peaceful Pakistan that honors the living memory of John Joseph, Bishop of Faisalabad.