First “Servant of God” in the history of the Church of Pakistan

Beatification Process of Akash Bashir

Joaquim Magalhães de Castro

On March 15, the cathedral in the city of Lahore was filled with more than 500 faithful who attended the solemn mass of thanksgiving that marked the conclusion of the diocesan phase of the beatification process of Akash Bashir, the 20-year-old Pakistani young man who on the same date, in 2015, seized a terrorist who was preparing to carry out a massacre at St. John’s Church in the district of Youhanabad.

“I know I’m going to die, but I won’t allow you to enter the church”, were his last words as he hugged the bomber, who immediately detonated the explosive belt he was carrying. With this heroic act of his, Akash saved the lives of countless parishioners, as around a thousand faithful attended the Eucharist that day. The terrorist group Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan Jamaatul Ahrar (TTP-JA) would later claim the attacks that day, which in total killed 17 people and injured more than 70, as Vatican News reported at the time.

Nine years later, the parish of Lahore honors the memory of the young martyr, and the Archbishop of that city, Sebastian Shaw, completing the diocesan investigation that recognizes the martyrdom of Akash Bashir, personally delivered the certificate proving it to the Apostolic Nuncio in Pakistan, Dom Germano Penemote, who was present at the Eucharistic celebration. Other documents collected and examined by the diocesan court during the diocesan phase of the canonical process, which began on March 15, 2022, were also delivered.

Bishop Sebastian Shaw recalled the sacrifice of the young Catholic – the first “Servant of God” in the history of the Church of Pakistan – and thanked his family and the community of believers who continue to pray for the success of the cause.

Speaking to the UCA News reporter, Akash Bashir’s father, Bashir Emmanuel, said he was very honored: “Akash symbolizes the strength of the Christian faith in our country.”

Bashir’s mother, Naz Bano, remembers the reason why her son, “in November 2014”, volunteered to provide security at St. John’s Church. In everyone’s memory was the suicide bomb attack that occurred in the previous year at All Saints Church in the city of Peshawar. “Akash used to discuss the matter with his friends and insist on the absolute need to protect our church. He said he was ready to sacrifice his life if God gave him an opportunity to protect others”. Today it is another of Naz Bano’s sons, Arsalan, who guards the Church of Saint John, thus taking his brother’s place. “We did nothing to change his mind,” said Mrs Bano. “We cannot prevent our children from serving the Church. It’s their choice.” She describes her son Akash as “part of my heart”, a “servant of the Lord” who everyone liked. “Akash is already our saint.”

Akash Bashir’s sacrifice is already bearing generous fruits. It is enough to remember that in the Church of Saint John alone, the site of the martyrdom, more than 800 baptisms are now celebrated annually; and more and more young Pakistanis are attending mass and participating in parish activities.

Akash Bashir attended the Don Bosco Technical and Youth Center, founded in Lahore in 1999 by Salesian clergy with the aim of welcoming students who were often rejected by traditional schools and providing them with technical and professional training. Pakistani priest Noble Lal, current Rector of the Salesian Institute, present at the commemorative Eucharist, told UCA News: “It was a very heartfelt celebration, in which priests, religious and lay people from our community participated with spiritual intensity. Akash represents a powerful source of inspiration for our youth.”

The documents collected by the diocese of Lahore are now in the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints in the Vatican, with Pakistani Catholics anxiously hoping that Akash Bashir can be declared a martyr by 2024, or at the latest in the jubilee year of 2025. In this regard, says Father Noble Lal: “For our part, we will continue to pray and every Wednesday we will celebrate a mass in memory of Akash at the Salesian Center, which is attended every week by more than 150 young people. His memory is alive and through his experience young people are impelled to cultivate and deepen faith in Jesus in their lives.”

Regarding martyrs, every year in Pakistan, the memory of the Catholic politician Shahbaz Bhatti, killed by terrorists in Islamabad on March 2, 2011, is evoked. Events and celebrations – which, in addition to Catholics, are attended by Muslims and believers of other religions – take place simultaneously in Islamabad, Lahore, Karachi, Faisalabad and also in Kushpur, Shahbaz Bhatti’s home village.

Allama Muhammad Ahsan Siddiqui, Chairman of the Interfaith Commission for Peace and Harmony (ICPH), remembers the eminent politician as follows: “Shahbaz Bhatti was a true promoter of religious tolerance, interfaith harmony and a true fierce defender of human dignity. He sacrificed his life to preserve religious freedom for future generations. His selfless commitment will be remembered forever and ever.”