I would like to take
Both my hands
(For I consider life
Itself too dear to lose)
Dip them in Petrol
Then set them alight
With a candle flame
And dedicate them
To those who acted
While I wept and wrote.
So it happened. Someone rose to make his ultimate protest. Knowing how his people wept, 66-year-old John Joseph, a Roman Catholic Bishop for 17 years, shot himself to death. He was one among the protestors of Pakistan´s tyrannical blasphemy laws. He was engaged with others like him to push the protest to its ultimate limits but mere opposition was of no use. The state authorities would not budge one bit. The pressure of fundamentalism was at its height.
What the protestors asked for was what people in most countries had and took for granted. They asked that the country´s blasphemy laws incorporated in the penal code be removed and with it the unjust discrimination against the non-Muslim.
The protest went on for years but cases under the blasphemy law continued. Sometimes victims went into hiding and others like Bishop John Joseph helped them to survive. But not every one could be saved. Mobs acting under the instructions of manipulators attacked and killed some. It was just a few months back that two people were attacked in front of the sessions court of Sahiwal town in the province of Punjab, and one of them was killed. It was on the very spot where this man was killed, that Bishop John Joseph sacrificed his life.
Some seem to find it difficult to understand the Bishop´s final action, though they claim that they do sympathise with his cause. This is a convenient way of trying to forget the very message of this revered Bishop.
As a Roman Catholic cleric he knew very well the Catholic teachings against suicide. When deciding to ignore these he would not have done so lightly. His was not a hasty decision. He had warned about it indirectly. He had warned the government that if the blasphemy laws were not repealed, he would protest in an astonishing way. At international gatherings he had said the people would protest and the protest would take different forms. His was thus a long contemplated deliberate act of protest.
Would any other form of protest have mattered? There had been many years of letter writings, national and international seminars, prayer meetings, publications and everything else that usually go under the name of protests. Nothing worked. Cynical games of harassment, intimidation and cruelty continued, and even the courts were used for such purposes. On 26 April 1998, the courts sentenced another man, Ayub Masih to death. As in other cases, the victim was accorded no due legal rights.
The challenge then was either do something that mattered or just bow to the situation. Bishop John Joseph was no hypocrite. As chairperson of the National Justice and Peace Commission, he was well known for his human rights activism.
But there comes a time when mere activism would no longer suffice. Instead of exposing the poor and the weak to any more attacks, it was time for a leader to face the challenge. He would take the suffering of his people on himself. Thus on 6 May, Bishop John Joseph offered his life on behalf of those he led.
His sacrifice poses a challenge to the leaders of the Christian community in his own country and outside. The questions he has left behind are these: will you just sit and watch or engage only in gestures that do not really matter, or will you do something meaningful for people who are so unjustly treated? Bishop John Joseph did what he thought he had to. Can anyone in Pakistan sit easy?