Pastor and Family of Pakistan’s First ‘Servant of God’ Akash Bashir Awaits Celebration of his Martyrdom Day
‘I cannot forget his sacrifice,’ said Father Francis Gulzar, who was saying Mass when Akash Bashir gave up his life to prevent a suicide bomber from entering the church.
The parents and siblings of Akash Bashir, the 20-year-old martyr raised to Servant of God by the Vatican at the end of January, are eagerly awaiting the big church celebration to mark the 7th anniversary of his death on March 15 in Pakistan.
So is his former pastor.
“We are celebrating Akash’s martyrdom in a grand manner as the Church has put him on the path to sainthood,” said Father Francis Gulzar, parish priest at St. John’s Church at Youhanabad in Lahore, where Akash sacrificed his life preventing a suicide bomber from entering the church while Sunday Mass was in progress on March 15, 2015.
“All the bishops including the nuncio will join our Archbishop Sebastian Shaw in the special service on Akash’s martyrdom day,” Father Gulzar, who is also the vicar general of the Archdiocese of Lahore, told the Register March 8.
“I cannot forget his sacrifice,” recalled Father Gulzar, who was saying Mass when the suicide bomber blew himself up at the church door, killing Akash and two others.
“On that tragic March 15 Sunday, Akash was at the main entrance of St. John’s Church, performing a security check,” recounted the priest.
When he heard the news that the Church of Christ, an Anglican church located 500 meters away, had been attacked by some terrorists, Father Gulzar added: “Akash tried to secure the area in front of St. John’s Church when he saw a man running towards the Church building. He was a terrorist, intent on carrying out a new massacre.
“Akash stood in front of him, trying to block him. The man threatened him, declaring that he had a bomb with him, but the young man did not let himself be intimidated. He hugged him to prevent him from entering the Church. The attacker blew himself up, causing the death of Akash and two other people."
The significance of Akash’s sacrifice can be gauged from the fact the suicide blast in the Protestant church claimed 17 lives and injured dozens.
A school drop-out trained in textile work, Akash was working in a textile factory when he opted to be a volunteer guard at the church, following the devastating suicide blast in an Anglican church in Peshawar that killed 85 people in 2014.
“We are excited and grateful to the Pope and the Church for putting our son on the path of canonization. We are eagerly looking forward to the big martyrdom day celebration,” Emmanuel Bashir, Akash’s father, told the Register in a video call with the family.
“When Akash died in the bomb blast, we were shattered,” recalled Emmauel, who earns his livelihood as a painter.
“But we are all thrilled now. I had opposed his request to be a volunteer guard at the church (after attending a seminar for lay people). But he insisted on joining and finally, we consented. But now, we are proud him,” said Emmanuel with tearful eyes.
“The scene of my son lying in a pool of blood haunted me for long,” recalled Akash’s mother Naz Bano, who had rushed to the church hearing the sound of the bomb blast from their house near the church.
“But now, that pain is gone and I am happy my son sacrificed life for Christ. Everyone is congratulating us for his heroic act,” said the mother of five children — with Akash being the middle one in the Catholic family, which had migrated to Labore in 2002 for a better life from the Nowshera area on the Afghan border.
“Akash used to ask me also to become a volunteer guard at the church. But I refused then,” said his younger brother Arsalan, who works as a carpenter with a furniture firm.
“After his death, several youth came forward to become volunteer guards and I also decided to join them. Many have been inspired by his martyrdom,” said Arsalan, speaking after returning home at 10pm after a long day’s work while his elder brother Waqas (the only one who is married) was sill away with his carpentry work.
Youngest of the five siblings, Ramish was hardly 13 when Akash died in the bomb blast. “I feel thrilled when everyone speaks of Akash and congratulates us. The ‘Servant of God’ announcement has moved many,” said Ramish, who is attending air-conditioning course at a church run technical institute.
“We are overwhelmed by the reaction of our people,” shared Komaish, the eldest daughter who teaches at a Christian nursery school.
“Initially, people were sympathetic to us. But now, they are excited about Akash’s martyrdom. We are looking forward to the big day. Our prayer to God now is to move him fast in the path to sainthood,” said Komaish who speaks fluent English.
The Impact of Martyrdom
“The history of the Church shows how blood of martyrs has helped the growth of the Church. It is happening in our parish too,” pointed out Father Gulzar, who has been the pastor for nine years at the St John’s parish with over 3,500 Catholic families.
Akash’s martyrdom, he noted, has “inspired and motivated many especially more youth to come to the church regularly.”
Dominican Father James Chanan, director of the Peace Centre in Lahore, also confirmed this: “Contrary to fears, Aksha’s martyrdom has been an inspiration for many and it has energized the youth more in the church.”
“Despite the attacks, bomb blasts and harassment of Christians, the good news is that these have not disheartened them. They are becoming more vibrant and active in the church,” Father Chanan told the Register.
As the canonization process has been set in for Akash, Catholics are also looking forward to progress in the cause of Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic minister in the federal government who was shot dead in 2011 for taking up the cause of Asia Bibi, a Christian imprisoned on a charge of blasphemy.
“As in the case of Akash, we are looking for progress in Shahbaz’s cause,” Michelle Choudhry, who organized an online memorial meeting for Bhatti on March 2 on his assassination anniversary, told the Register.
Bhatti’s personal Bible and rosary are kept at the altar of the Basilica of San Bartolomeo memorial of martyrs and witnesses of faith in Rome.
Meanwhile, the Centre for Social Justice, a Catholic action group, has released a factsheet on the rights of religious minorities in Pakistan.
The comprehensive Human Rights Observer 2022 study on the grim situation of the Christians in Pakistan focuses on abuse of the country’s draconian blasphemy law, the forced marriage and conversions of Christians, and the discrimination against minorities in the education system.
The report makes several recommendations including urgent steps to end the “mob violence in the name of religion” in the Muslim majority nation where, according to the 2017 Census, Muslims make up over 96% of 213 million people, Hindus 1.6%, Christians 1.59%.