by Stefano Lodigiani
Lahore (Agenzia Fides) - "We do not need and do not want civil war. We Christians are men of peace. Do not let pain cloud our gaze: may it always be the gaze of Christ and of his Gospel. What future do we want to build for Pakistan? A future of harmony and reconciliation". These are the words of the Archbishop of Lahore, His Exc. Monsignor Sebastian Shaw, reported by Agenzia Fides, with whom he addressed the crowd of more than 10 thousand faithful who attended, on March 17, 2015, the funeral of the victims of the attack on the Catholic Church of Saint John and the Protestant Christ Church in Youhanabad, a Christian suburb on the outskirts of Lahore. The double attack, committed on Sunday March 15, left 15 dead and more than 80 injured, some of whom died in the days that followed.
Among the victims of the attack on Saint John's Church, a young Pakistani Catholic, Akash Bashir, became the first "Servant of God" in the history of the Church of Pakistan, on January 31, 2022. The twenty-year-old young man was among the volunteers responsible for ensuring the safety of the faithful outside the church, given the extremely tense situation and the succession of attacks and threats against Christian communities. Akash had assumed this task with a great sense of responsibility, and had not hesitated to sacrifice his life to save those of hundreds of people who were praying inside the church at that time: to stop a suicide bomber, he died with him.
A gesture that is certainly not attributable to the spur of the moment, fruit and expression of a simple faith, mature and characterized by witness, as Father Pierluigi Cameroni, SDB, Postulator General points out: "Akash lived a concrete commitment based on faith to increase peace, coexistence, justice and mercy, and thus extend the Kingdom of God in the world. In silence and anonymity, he lived the Gospel fully, living the present with dedication and generosity".
Born in Risalpur, Pakistan, on June 22, 1994, Akash was a very fragile child who barely survived an adverse climate, his family's poverty and poor diet. These factors probably influenced his development: he didn't learn to walk and talk until he was four years old, and he dragged a stuttering problem into his pre-teens. Instead of bringing him down, these difficulties helped to strengthen his character. In Risalpur, Akash received the sacraments of Baptism, First Communion and Confirmation, in the church of St. John. The proximity of Risalpur to Afghanistan and the increase in terrorist attacks in 2007 prompted Akash's parents to emigrate to the east of Pakistan, in Punjab, more precisely in Lahore, in the district of Youhanabad, near the family of Akash's mother. Akash's father found a job there as a painter, and in 2008 the whole family was reunited in Lahore.
"In Lahore - explains Father Cameroni - Akash attended St. Dominic High School for a year, starting from September 25, 2008. He then dropped out of school due to his lack of inclination to study and then enrolled in the RCCM - Community Boys Middle School – and finally, in September 2010, at the Don Bosco Technical and Youth Center, founded in 2000 to welcome students rejected by traditional schools. Akash attended the institute till February 24, 2011, but did not pass the promotion exam. The Salesians in the district of Youhanabad run a boarding school for children and young people, a primary school, a technical school, workshops for young women and an evening school. The Salesians founded their first mission in Pakistan in the city of Quetta in 1998, and another in Lahore the following year".
From the testimonies collected for the Cause of Beatification, it emerged that Akash was a very simple young man. His father remembers him as an obedient son, a humble worker born and raised in a poor family, a patient person and above all a young man with strong faith. His parents had raised Akash to lead a simple and hard-working life, with honesty and respect for others.
Friendly and cheerful, he "always spoke with a smiling face" and was always ready to help. This is also how those who knew him outside the family circle remember him, such as Mrs. Maryam Adrees, who was his teacher in class VIII and his neighbor: "He was a simple, charitable and innocent boy. He was very respectful to everyone. Akash cared about what happened to others. He always respected the elderly and small children. Whatever work was given to him, he did it with all his heart and soul. He never did any injustice to anyone, on the contrary, when he noticed that someoneone was being mistreated, he reacted by trying to do something about it. Akash wanted to live his life at the service of his family and society. He used to help the poor and needy with what he had". Even Mr. Naveed – an optician whom Akash used to go to with his grandmother to have his glasses repaired - a Muslim, also recalls Akash's concern for the poor and needy: "Every time he saw the poor, he felt sad; if he had nothing to offer or give, he prayed for them. Even though he was sometimes hungry, he used to give his food to others".
"The brief but profound experience of the Salesian spirit and of the preventive system that animates it - continues the Postulator - had an intimate and profound effect on the formation of young Akash, which led him to a greater knowledge and to a strengthened friendship with Christ and with Mary, whose statue is present in a grotto in the courtyard of the parish church of Youhanabad, the Catholic Church of Saint John: Akash stopped in front of her in prayer before starting service. He dedicated particular moments to devotion to Mary, shared with the community in the prayers of the Rosary at the parish and in the pilgrimages to Mariamabad, a city located 80 kilometers northwest of Lahore, reachable in 5 hours by public transport, to venerate the Blessed Virgin. The Salesians also taught him that the important thing was not to stop in the face of personal adversity, but to persevere with humility on the path of life and faith, and to look even more enthusiastically at life and at the service of others".
On Sunday, March 15, 2015, while Holy Mass was being celebrated in the parish of Saint John, the group of young security volunteers, of which Akash Bashir was a part, guarded the entrance. Akash noticed that a person carrying explosives under his clothes was trying to enter the church. He held her back, spoke to her and stopped her from continuing, but realizing he couldn't stop her, he hugged her tightly, saying, "I will die, but I will not let you into the church". The young man and the suicide bomber therefore died together. Akash offered his life to save that of hundreds of people, boys, girls, mothers, teenagers and adults who were praying inside the church at the time.
"Akash was 20 years old", Father Cameroni points out, "this fact left a deep impression. His simple and normal life is undoubtedly a very significant and important example for the young Christians of Lahore, of all Pakistan and of the Salesian world. Akash Bashir, a former pupil of Don Bosco in Pakistan, is a witness of the Preventive System of Don Bosco, an example for young people and a blessing for religious minorities. His cause for beatification is a sign of hope and an example of youthful holiness up to martyrdom. Like the first martyr, Saint Stephen, Akash died contemplating heaven, testifying with his sacrifice united to that of Christ the Redeemer, that violence is conquered by love, death by life. With his death, this young servant of the Gospel teaches that the glory of Heaven, the glory which lasts all life and even eternal life, is not that of wealth and power, but that of love and self-sacrifice. Akash, with the sacrifice of his young life, testifies that with Jesus, we can always look to the future".
Akash's death and his testimony continue to offer Christians in Pakistan, especially the younger ones, a shining example, Father Cameroni points out: at St. John's Catholic Church, even after the attack and Akash's death, more than 800 baptisms are performed each year, many young Pakistanis (including one of Akash's brothers who became a security volunteer) have taken up service in parishes, started attending Mass and value life and family. "He is a role model for other young people and for people of other faiths, an inspiration for service to others and selfless help". (Agenzia Fides 21/3/2023)