Catholics in Pakistan Respond to Violence by Promoting Interreligious Dialogue

Tensions Rose in the Wake of Sept. 11

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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, JULY 16, 2003 ( Events such as the Sept. 11 attacks, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and suicide attacks in Israel have created new difficulties in relations between Catholics and Muslims in mission territories, as is the case of Pakistan.

With the help of World Mission, the magazine of the Pontifical Institute of Foreign Missions, ZENIT has compiled experiences, such as those of Dominican Father Rocus Patras, 40, a priest at St. Dominic Parish, in Bahawalpur, where 17 Christians were killed on Oct. 28, 2001.

«In this country, as in other Asian nations, the propaganda of fanatical movements of any denomination tends to define as the West’s fifth column those who, although of the same blood and homeland, have converted to Christianity,» the priest explained.

«For these people, Christians continue to be enemies who must be counteracted because they are always and everywhere committed to proselytism,» he said. «The recognition by the Church of errors committed in some circumstances in the past serves no purpose. The change of point of view promoted by Vatican Council II is simply ignored for those who, in bad faith, seek rivalry.»

Father James Channan, the Dominican vice provincial in Pakistan, has faced his own problems.

«I went to celebrate Mass in the Catholic town of Mian Channu,» he recalled. «It was hard. There were over 50 armed youths surrounding the Church. They had the duty to ensure that we had a ‘peaceful’ celebration.»

«I thought I had entered a war zone, although it was the same place where I studied 32 years ago,» Father Channan said. «At that time, there was no fear. Those were peaceful days. There were processions on feast days. Soccer championships and other activities were held in a quiet atmosphere.»

In fact, according to the Dominican, the church doors were always open and on summer nights the priests and school children slept on the ground in the open.

However, «today, all are afraid. The doors are closed,» he said. «There are no processions or championships. Why have the people changed so rapidly? Why is our Christian community so afraid? Why do our youths have to arm themselves to protect Christians who pray? Why do we need the police to preside over our schools and churches?»

Father Channan said that the hatred toward Christians cannot be attributed to external enemies. «The criminals responsible for that act of terrorism are around us and are trying to create a confrontation between religions and civilizations,» he said. «They want to give life to ‘crusades.'»

In Pakistan, Catholics number just over 1 million — in a population of 147 million — and almost all belong to lower or marginalized social classes.

In order to impede the spread of violence, the National Committee for Peace and Social Justice was created, open also to other Christians and to representatives of Islam. «As peaceful people, we must promote social harmony in this difficult situation,» said Bishop Joseph Coutts of Faisalabad.

Archbishop Lawrence Saldanha of Lahore hopes the dialogue will involve not only liberal Muslims «but also the conservatives, who have great influence with the people.»

The peace committee works in close contact with parishes, parish priests, religious and catechists. Its tasks including suggesting ways to avoid the rise of interreligious confrontations.

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