Bishop John Joseph fired a bullet into his head on 6 May 1998 in a court-house where a Catholic was sentenced to death on 27 April under the blasphemy law of Pakistan. The blasphemy law in Pakistan has been condemned throughout the world for many years, but there has been no change in the provisions of the criminal law, which allow death sentence for alleged acts of blasphemy. Under the blasphemy law, a person is convicted on the same day on which he is accused of the offence. At the trials under these laws no defenders are allowed to represent the accused, and the courts themselves have to reckon with the intense pressure of fundamentalists. In many instances, this law is abused for private purposes such as land disputes or business rivalries.
Bishop Joseph, 66, was a well-known Church leader and was appointed as the bishop of Faisalabad in central Punjab in 1981. He was also the chairman of the Catholic Human Rights Commission established by the Catholic Bishops Conference in Pakistan.
Bishop Joseph’s protest came after the conviction of Ayub Masih, a Catholic who was accused of telling some people to read Salmon Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in order to know the truth about Islam. According to human rights organisations, the charges were false and were intended to force 15 Christian families to drop a land dispute.
The bishop earlier warned the government that he would protest in an astonishing way if the blasphemy law were not repealed. The government did not respond.
The archbishop of Lahore, in summing up the response to the incident, stated, “We should not call it a suicide. He sacrificed his life fighting against injustice.”
In earlier occasions commenting on others cases, the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has repeated calls for the repeal of the blasphemy law of Pakistan as it offends all basic rules of religious tolerance and the norms of U.N. international instruments, particularly the right to practise a religion of one’s choice, freedom of conscience and all the due process rights.
We urge that protest letters be written to the government of Pakistan and Pakistan Consulates in other countries expressing solidarity with the bishop’s protest and calling for the release of Masih and the repeal of the blasphemy law.