The Catholic Church of Pakistan now has its first official candidate to sainthood and martyrdom, Akash Bashir, a lay Catholic  and a young victim of a suicide bombing who was martyred in his bid to prevent a suicide bomber from entering a packed church in 2015.

Celebrating the feast of St. John Bosco on Monday 31st January, Archbishop Sebastian Shaw of Lahore announced that the Vatican has accepted the cause of Akash Bashir’s martyrdom, UCA News reported. The title ‘Servant of God’ is given to a candidate at the beginning of the sainthood process at the diocesan level.

Pakistani Catholics have begun praying for the intercession of the first Servant of God and martyr from the overwhelmingly Muslim nation.

“A great day for the Catholic Church in Pakistan. He offered his life as a sacrifice to save the lives of the Christian community at St. John’s Catholic Church, Youhanabad, Lahore,” said Vicar General of the archdiocese, Father Francis Gulzar, in a statement. “He is the first Pakistani Christian who has been raised to the rank of the Holy People of God.”

Born on 22 June 1994 in Risalpur, Nowshera, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, Akash died a martyr at the age of 20.

On 15 March 2015, two suicide bombers blew themselves up near St. John’s Catholic Church and the nearby Christ ‎Church of the Church of Pakistan in Lahore’s predominantly Christian neighbourhood of Youhanabad, as the faithful were gathered inside for Sunday worship during Lent.‎

The attacks, claimed by the terrorist group called Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan Jamaatul Ahrar (TTP-JA), killed 17 people and injured more than 70.

Akash, an alumnus of Don Bosco Technical Institute who served as a volunteer security guard, prevented a suicide bomber from entering St. John’s Catholic Church.

“I will die but I will not let you go in,” were his words as he confronted the terrorist strapped with explosives. The attacker detonated the bomb, instantly killing himself, Bashir and 2 others outside the church packed with over 1,000 faithful, thus preventing a large-scale carnage.Pope Francis was quick to denounce the terror attacks.

“Dear brothers and sisters, with sorrow, with much sorrow, I learned of today’s terrorist attacks on two churches in the city of Lahore, Pakistan, which caused many deaths and injuries,” Pope Francis said, hours later at the midday Angelus prayer that day. “They are Christian churches. Christians are being persecuted. Our brothers and sisters are spilling their blood solely because they are Christians,” he lamented. “While I assure the victims and their families of my prayers, I ask the Lord, I implore the Lord, source of all goodness, the gift of peace and accord for that country; may there be an end to this persecution of Christians, which the world tries to hide, and may there be peace,” the Pope added.

Some 40 Christians were later jailed following the lynching of two Muslims who were suspected of being involved in the attacks.

Akash’s father, Bashir Emmanuel, said he didn’t know about the latest development regarding his son. “One of my sons shared that there is a special Mass at the church,” he told UCA News. “Akash symbolizes the strength of the Christian faith in our country. I pray for the clearance of all steps to sainthood.”

Archbishop Emeritus Lawrence Saldanha of Lahore 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.