On the Plight of Catholics in Pakistan

Interview With a Journalist-Activist

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KARACHI, Pakistan, JULY 24, 2005 (Zenit.org).- Catholics are living a delicate situation in Pakistan, according to the editor of the diocesan newspaper The Christian Voice.

Robin Fernandez, founder of the Karachi-based human rights group Conscience, is the information secretary for the press watchdog group Journalists for Human Rights and Democracy. He is also a member of the editorial staff of Dawn, Pakistan’s premier English-language newspaper.

In this ZENIT interview, Fernandez comments on the situation of Catholics in Muslim-majority Pakistan.

Q: Pakistan seems to be a difficult place for Christians to live in. Is this correct, or is it only an impression from the outside?

Fernandez: Generally speaking, it is not as difficult to lead a Christian life in Pakistan as it is made out to be. There are various challenges but, ironically, instead of making people vulnerable, those challenges have made them resilient, even strong.

The threats faced by Pakistani Christians today stem mainly from small, yet powerful Muslim extremist groups. Members of these groups are motivated by a burning sense of justice and almost an obsessive desire to right the wrongs suffered by their co-religionists and avenge the deaths of Muslims in Iraq, Bosnia, Kashmir, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Their actions are neither popular nor sanctioned by the government, but their motivation is perhaps shared by many.

Most Pakistani Christians are mindful of the fact that they are supported by a majority of their Muslim compatriots.

For the most part, the two communities enjoy a deep sense of understanding and kinship. They share their joys and grief and live in harmony with each other in most neighborhoods of the country.

Most Pakistanis acknowledge the work of Christians and their institutions. They respect them as law-abiding citizens, industrious workers and value them as nation- and institution-builders.

A lot of what happens to Christians and their institutions in Pakistan today is linked to what the United States and its allies in the West do on a day-to day basis to Muslim states or Muslim populations across the globe.

If the United States bombs Afghanistan or invades Iraq, then extremists groups in the country believe they can get back at the United States and its allies by attacking a church or any other Christian institution.

So we end up bearing the brunt of any act of Western aggression in the world. Mind you, most Pakistanis do not accept this extremist-created link between Western aggression and local Christians and believe it is wrong to punish anybody but the U.S. government for its actions.

Catholics and other Christian denominations are free to worship. The government has provided churches and vulnerable institutions with armed police guards. Pakistani Christians and other religious minorities enjoy the respect and admiration of Muslims.

Pakistan had a much more tolerant society about 26 years ago, and, by and large, the religious minorities living here felt safe. But since the early ’80s the country has seen the introduction and enactment of various laws that have eroded layer by layer the pluralistic fabric of society.

Those laws, passed under a so-called Islamization drive by the late military ruler Zia ul-Haq, were discriminatory against religious minorities. Suddenly members of other faiths found themselves being treated differently.

Just to give you a small example: A religion column was introduced in the national passport in the 1980s. Before that, religion was rarely a divisive issue.

Q: Recently, the police raided the bookstore of the Daughters of St. Paul in Saddar, confiscated material, interrogated an employee of the bookstore for 24 hours and intimidated the sisters. An article containing accusations by Muslim extremists, published in a national newspaper in Urdu, triggered the raid. Why did this take place? Why would a Christian bookshop be seen as dangerous or outrageous to Islam?

Fernandez: There is a lingering suspicion among extremists that Christians are proselytizing through these bookshops and seeking covert and overt means to spread their faith.

But, as any member of the Christian denominations running these bookshops will tell you, the books and other literature, religious objects, paintings, icons, videos and audiotapes are meant exclusively for members of their faith.

In the case of Catholics, there is no other resource except the Daughters of St. Paul bookshop in Saddar. This bookshop is of inestimable value to them. Catholics come here to buy the Holy Bible, rosaries, portraits, medals, calendars, audiotapes and compact discs, and an assortment of books on theology, art, languages, etc.

A little bit of background is perhaps necessary. The bookshop is located in the heart of the city center. There are three such Christian bookshops in the area called Saddar. The first is run by the Salvation Army, the second by the Daughters of St. Paul, and the third by the interdenominational Pakistan Bible Society.

This last bookshop was actually bombed a year and a half ago, and although police officials still insist that the bookshop itself was not the main target, there is little doubt about the intentions of the terrorists.

The Salvation Army bookshop is being provided two police guards because it has also faced threats in the recent past.

All three have existed for decades, and only recently have come to the attention of extremists. Unfortunately these extremists know very little about our bookshops and the purpose of their existence.

In the specific instance of the Daughters of St Paul bookshop, there was an elaborate plan to trap the institution and lay a frenzy of charges against it ranging from blasphemy to copyright violation, promotion of illegal screening of biblical films to active proselytizing.

But the plan came to naught because the accusers could not prove that the sisters were producing biblical movies in large quantities, or selling them under the counter and out in the street. Clearly that was not the case. It would be a punishable offence had it been the case.

Q: Recent events in London lead us to Pakistan. Do you think that in your country there are training courses for terrorists?

Fernandez: I don’t think there are training courses for terrorists in Pakistan. But I do think parts of our country have unfortunately been a fertile ground for extremists to meet and network, to take refuge and melt into society unnoticed, and slip in and out undetected. This should not be interpreted as a sign that Pakistanis favor extremism or even encourage it.

This state was conscripted by America into a long and protracted struggle against Soviet occupation forces in Afghanistan, and the debris of that war has proved too costly and deadly. Our country was swamped by arms and drugs as a result. Thousands of resistance fighters camped in our cities and radicalized our youth. We are now merely reaping the whirlwind.

Q: You are a journalist, a lay person and a Catholic. Do you feel free to express your point of view, either as a journalist who seeks the truth, or as a person of faith?

Fernandez: There are shadows and lights of course. As a journalist it is not always easy to do one’s job. For most of the time, if we follow our professional ethics, we are required to be as neutral as possible and, without taking sides, portray the truth as we see it.

Often we encounter resistance from the government, political parties and special interest groups, but our battle is for freedom of expression and the ability to exercise our rights as conscience-driven members of civil society. In that effort we don’t always succeed, but then again, we don’t always fail.

As a Catholic, I feel that our truth-seeking ways are appreciated, but still misunderstood by some people. Our Muslim compatriots are supportive, a
nd many of them count on us being the enlightened minority, a segment that has a huge role to play in Pakistani society.

But there are segments that believe that Christians do not belong to Pakistan, and should be sidelined in all spheres.

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