The Word Among Us

November 2023 Issue

Blessed Are the Persecuted

The Heroic Sacrifice of Akash Bashir

By: Therese Brown

Blessed Are the Persecuted: The Heroic Sacrifice of Akash Bashir by Therese Brown

The Beatitudes are among the most beloved of Jesus’ teachings (Matthew 5:3-12). But the last two of them—“Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness” and “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you”—can still be hard for us to hear. No one wants to be persecuted!

Religious persecution is outside most of our lived experiences. Especially in the United States, we are free to discuss and debate our religious differences without fear of harm or punishment. For Christians in other parts of the world, however, persecution is part of daily life. Take Pakistan, for instance. Islam is the state religion, and Christians are a minority enjoying very little protection. In some areas of the country, they live in almost constant fear of violence.

A Dangerous Environment. This is the world in which Akash Bashir—a Catholic from Risalpur in the northwest province of Pakistan—was born in 1994. It was in this kind of environment that he followed Jesus’ call to lay down his life for his persecuted neighbors and friends.

The Catholicism of Akash and his family goes as far back as St. Thomas the Apostle, who first brought the gospel to the Indian subcontinent around AD 52. Like many of the first Christian missionaries, Thomas risked everything in order to spead the good news. And like them, he died a martyr’s death.

Though two thousand years have passed since Thomas’ martyrdom, little has changed. Pakistani Christians are still bullied and attacked. Their movements and freedom of speech are restricted. And most of them remain in poverty because of restrictions on the kind of work they are allowed to perform. If anything, the 1980s and 90s—the era when Akash’s parents grew up—saw a rise in intolerance and hatred for non-Muslims. They were often unjustly accused of blasphemy and beaten or killed without any intervention from the authorities.

Finding Safety in Community. Sometime after Akash was born, his parents made the difficult decision to leave their home in Risalpur and settle in Lahore in the Punjab region. They probably moved for the same reasons many people do: they were looking for a safer place to raise their children and a region with greater opportunities for them to practice their faith and to find meaningful work. The Punjab region was a logical choice. It has the largest Christian population in Pakistan, with more than half a million Catholics living there. The greatest concentration of Catholics is in Lahore, where both Sacred Heart Cathedral and St. Francis Xavier Seminary are located.

Akash and his family settled within in the relative safety of the neighborhood of Youhanabad, where the largest majority of Christians live. The trust and support of this strong faith community clearly affected Akash. He became an active member of his family’s church, St. John Parish, where he often volunteered to help the needy.

As one of the largest cities in Pakistan, Lahore offered a few more job opportunities for Akash’s father and, eventually, for himself and his brothers. Still, most of the work open to Christians there was menial: laborers, janitors, and garbage collectors. Most of the better paying jobs would have been closed to the Bashir men either because of their faith or because they didn’t have connections with the right—Muslim—people.

Lahore is also home to the Don Bosco Technical Institute, a Catholic trade school for youth, where Akash was educated. It was founded in 2000 by the Salesian Fathers as a place to train young men to be electricians, welders, plumbers, and carpenters. The Salesians hope that with good training—which was not available in the past—young men like Akash will be able to find better jobs.

Growing Violence. Many factors contributed to the growing violence in Lahore and Pakistan as a whole. The country’s school curriculum had taught generations of children to hate ethnic and religious minorities. The judicial system looked the other way when citizens attacked minorities. Over time, Pakistan became the home of various radical Islamist groups like al-Qaeda, the group responsible for the September 11, 2001 attack on the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon.

As a young boy of seven at the time of those attacks, Akash probably understood very little about the war between the US and Afghanistan and the search for Osama bin Laden and his followers. What he likely saw, though, was increased violence and discrimination. People like him and his family were treated as scapegoats for Muslim Pakistanis who equated being Christian with supporting the West and US interests in the region.

As a result, Akash’s early and middle teen years were filled with reports of mass shootings of Christians. There was a massacre in 2009 in Gojra; in 2011, attacks by Muslim demonstrators killed 20 people in Gujranwala, with two more attacks taking place in 2013. One of them was in Lahore, where one hundred houses were set on fire after Christians allegedly made blasphemous remarks. The other occurred at All Saints Church in Peshawar, where seventy-five people were killed in a suicide bombing.

After the Peshawar attack, many Christian denominations began recruiting young adults to help guard their churches and to keep their congregations safe during Sunday services. Akash recognized the need and spent months convincing his family that he needed to join the volunteer guards for their parish church. Eventually, the family relented.

Standing with His Faith Community. To understand why a young man like Akash would decide to put his life at stake like this, we need to look back to the days of the early Church. The first Christians committed themselves to living out Jesus’ teachings in everyday, simple ways. It began with caring for one another in materially: feeding those who had less and holding their possessions in common (Acts 2:44; 6:1). It moved out from there to caring for the needy outside of their own community (2 Corinthians 8:1-4). They stood with each other, especially in the face of violence and discrimination, because they knew that “they” were stronger than any “I” or one person.

Akash followed a similar path, to the point where he made the humble and faithful decision to risk laying down his life in order to protect the larger community of believers around him.

So it was that on Sunday, March 15, 2015, twenty-year-old Akash Bashir showed up to his volunteer security post before the start of the 11 a.m. Mass at St. John’s Catholic Church—just as he had done regularly since joining the guards four months earlier. At the same time, two suicide bombers made their way toward Youhanabad: one to St. John’s and the other to Christ Church (of the Church of Pakistan), about a quarter mile away. Both churches were packed with worshippers.

One of the bombers walked up to Akash and confronted him at the church’s entrance. Akash quickly hugged the man to his body to prevent him from going inside. “I will die,” he told the man, “but I will not let you go in.” Unable to escape Akash’s grasp, the attacker set off the bomb, killing himself and Akash immediately.

Blocks away, a second bomb went off at Christ Church.

The sound of the explosions ripped through the neighborhood. When she heard them, Akash’s mother rushed into the street toward St. John’s, praying that her son and those he protected were safe. Picking her way through the rubble and scanning the crowd for a glimpse of Akash, she came to the gate of the church. That’s when she saw what remained of her son’s body lying in the dirt.

Already Our Saint. Those two blasts killed seventeen people and injured more than seventy others. But because of Akash’s faith and courage, more than one thousand worshippers were saved. Recalling the incident later, Akash’s mother said, “Akash was a piece of my heart. But our happiness is greater than our pain. . . . He was a simple youth who died on the Lord’s road, saving the priest and the parishioners. Akash is already our saint.”

It seems the Church agrees. On January 31, 2022, seven years after the blast, Archbishop Sebastian Shaw of Lahore announced that the Vatican had named Akash Bashir a Servant of God, the first step in the canonization process. Akash was the first Pakistani Christian to be given this honor.

Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you (Matthew 5:11). For Akash Bashir, his family, and the Catholic community of Youhanabad, this final Beatitude was and remains a way of life. In fact, one of Akash’s brothers, Arsalan, has taken Akash’s place and continues to guard St. John’s Church. Rather than focus on the persecution, they respond as Jesus asks of all of us. They consider themselves “blessed” and strive to offer peace in the face of violence and mercy in the place of hatred.

Therese Brown writes from Baltimore, Maryland.