Akash Bashir is the first Asian to be given the title; his elder brother is now a volunteer guard at the same church attacked by the Taliban splinter group.
On the morning of March 15, 2015, Akash Bashir, 21, was standing guard outside the St. John’s Catholic Church when a Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) suicide bomber tried to force his way into the premises where hundreds of faithful had gathered for Sunday prayers.
At the same time, another suicide bomber was trying to make his way into the nearby Christ Church of the Church of Pakistan in the predominantly Christian neighbourhood of Youhanabad.
But Akash, though unarmed, was unfazed as he faced off with the militant with explosives strapped to his body.
“I will die, but I will not let you go in,” eyewitnesses later quoted Akash as telling the militant.
Those were the Catholic Christian’s last recorded words as the militant detonated the explosives, killing himself and Akash on the spot.
The other militant too blew himself up around the same time. The twin attacks left 17 people dead and injured more than 70 others. The TTP is known for attacking civilians across all faiths, including Muslims.
Nearly seven years after the incident, the Vatican has declared Akash a “Servant of God” – the first Pakistani and first Asian to be given the title, the first step towards possible canonisation.
“A great day for the Catholic Church in Pakistan. He offered his life to save the lives of the Christian community at St John's Catholic Church,” Father Francis Gulzar, the Vicar General of the archdiocese, said in a statement. "He is the first Pakistani Christian who has been raised to the rank of the Holy People of God.”
Archbishop Emeritus Lawrence Saldanha of Lahore also congratulated the community.
“When there is so much sad news, this news is very joyful. Akash remains a great model of a modern martyr. May he inspire and encourage all young people,” UCA News reported him as saying in a Facebook post.
Akash’s brave act had alerted others inside the church, packed with an estimated 1,000 devotees, potentially saving many lives as they were able to take evasive action before the militants blew themselves up.
Community under siege
Christians form just 3 percent of Pakistan’s population of more than 220 million.
Most of them have no access to education, jobs, healthcare, housing or civic amenities. They live in unplanned settlements like Youhanabad, home to an estimated one lakh (100,000) Christians.
The 2015 attacks were later claimed by the TTP, a Taliban splinter group that has been designated as a terrorist group by the Pakistani state.
The news of the Vatican title saw jubilation in the Youhanabad neighbourhood which is still haunted by the bloody Sunday massacre.
“On the occasion of the celebration of St John Bosco, Archbishop Sebastian Shaw of Lahore announced that the Vatican had accepted the cause of the martyrdom of Akash,” his father tells TRT World.
“He was given the title on January 31, but we were given this news earlier on the eve of New Year,” adds the father of four.
Unarmed but determined
Akash’s elder brother Arsalan, 26, has now taken up the cudgels of protecting the church — he is a volunteer security guard just like his younger sibling. As are other young men of the community.
Tall and dark-complexioned, Arsalan says he has pledged to fight the Taliban if they plan to attack the church again.
“We are unarmed. But we will lay our lives and stop the terrorists from killing anyone of our community coming to the church to offer prayers,” Arsalan tells TRT World.
“Dying to save others’ lives is also a form of worship.”
“After my brother died, I decided to volunteer myself too for the security of the church and the parishioners,” says Arsalan, proudly standing next to a memorial plaque erected at the place where the suicide bombers had struck.
Akash, the sky
Akash’s mother says he had predicted his own death months before it happened.
“Three months before this tragic incident, he got involved in offering voluntary services for the church. He displayed the Christmas crib at the church,” his mother recalls.
“Then one day, he came home and asked me to sign a form to authorise his services as a volunteer security guard at the church, but I refused to sign it. Then, he asked his father to sign it, who also refused.”
The mother says that though she had refused to allow him to take up the risky job, “God had already chosen him for this job.”
Three days before the bombers attacked the churches, Akash asked his mother how they would feel if he died fighting militants.
“I had never thought about its meaning when I named him Akash – which means sky,” she says.
“Today, I understand the meaning… he has done something as big as the sky because the whole world today knows him.”
Leave a comment