Pakistani Christians: Second-Class Citizens?

Interview with Bishop Joseph Coutts

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FAISALABAD, Pakistan, JUNE 6, 2010 ( It is increasingly hard to be a Catholic in a Muslim majority country, says the bishop of the Faisalabad Diocese, where Christians are often treated as second-class citizens.

In this interview given to the television program «Where God Weeps» of the Catholic Radio and Television Network (CRTN) in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need, the bishop speaks about his vocation, the situation of Christians in Pakistan, and the problems associated with the «blasphemy law» in that country.

Q: The official name of Pakistan is the Islamic Republic of Pakistan; therefore it is obvious that the population of Pakistan is mostly Muslim, some 95%. So, the Christians are a minority in a predominantly Muslim country. How is it to be a small Christian Church?

Bishop Coutts: Yes, it is quite a challenge for us living in an Islamic milieu where we are, as Christians something like 2 % and as Catholics about 1% give or take, maybe a little more than 1%.

In fact it’s becoming more difficult since recent years with the rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan and in the other parts of the world as well, and we do feel that since recent years things are becoming more intolerant than they were before.

Q: Where are these threats coming from? Who is threatening you?

Bishop Coutts: OK, let us not just use the word threat. As I said the real threat in that sense was in this northwestern province.

Pakistan is a fairly large country; if you compare it with the United States, it’s about the size, I think if I’m not wrong, something like Texas and Oklahoma with a little bit more in area with a large population.

The difficulty we have is, for example, there are these Islamic groups who would like to see Pakistan become a purely Islamic state. If Pakistan becomes a purely Islamic state with all Islamic laws which we don’t have now; we only have some Islamic laws, if we have all the Islamic laws then it means that as a non-Muslims we would be something like second class citizens.

Islam has a special term for that — «dhimmi» they call them. We will not be the same. We would not have equality as the constitution talks about. We would have freedom, but it would be a limited freedom. That’s what I mean by the threat.

We have some laws that have already been passed, for example, what we call the «Blasphemy Law,» we refer to it very often as 295 C — that’s according to the code of law in our country.

Q: What is this «Blasphemy Law»?

Bishop Coutts: It’s a very dangerous law because it say that if anybody speaks against or defiles the name of the holy prophet Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, either by word or by writing or by representation, either directly or indirectly the punishment is death.

So there is no mention here, within the law as it is formulated, of intention, whether you do it accidentally, whether you do it out of ignorance, or you do not intend to, it says the punishment is death. Now this is very dangerous […]

Q: What does it mean for you Catholics?

Bishop Coutts: Actually to be very fair, this law is dangerous not only for Catholics or for Christians or for non-Muslims, but even for Muslims. There is another law. Let me explain a little further.

There is 295 C and there is also 295 B; now B says: If you desecrate the holy Qur’an, the holy book of the Muslims, that is also punishable. So even if you accidentally drop the holy Qur’an you can be punished.

I will give you a very concrete example: in my city Faisalabad, what happened two years ago. We had this poor Christian woman who was doing the cleaning work in the house of a rich Muslim family, while many old papers and cans and old bottles and other stuff were being thrown out of the house.

This woman, she had her old father with her and when they sorted out what could be recycled — we do a lot of recycling in our poor country, all the cans, papers and bottles — some papers were to be burned. So he took them out into the little poor area where they were living to burn these papers. The old man, her father, and a Muslim who was passing said: «There is a page of the holy Qur’an in there. You are going to burn the holy Qur’an.»

And he created a big noise and everybody gathered and mind you it becomes something really very emotional because a Muslim, quite understandably, gets very disturbed if he hears that his holy book is being desecrated. It became a very big issue. This old man and another Christian were immediately taken to the police station; a case was registered under 295 B: desecration of the holy book.

They are both in prison now; two years have passed; they are fighting their case. The lower court has condemned them to prison for five years. We are appealing in the high court; we can do that.

Our Commission for Justice and Peace has taken it up. Other NGO’s have also supported us. Even many moderate, fair-minded Muslims have supported us, but this is the kind of tension we live in.

You suddenly, something you do not expect, something you did not intend to do and you have to pay a heavy price. So all the Christians living in that area are also affected.

Q: How are they affected?

Bishop Coutts: There is a lot of fear.

Maybe the Muslims will attack us. In fact, many of them fled to the bishop’s house and we kept them in the parish hall for the night, in fact more than a night, perhaps two or three days, before the emotions could calm down, and so also 295 C is much more dangerous.

Even if a Muslim does the same thing, he faces the same danger. So this is one of the things.

Q: But that is something positive, if you say that it is not just against the Catholics, or against the Christians, but also against the Muslim population?

Bishop Coutts: Statistically at the moment, there are more people in jail for section 295 C than there are Christians, but the danger of the law is, it’s very easy to accuse somebody of having spoken against the prophet Muhammad, or saying or even writing something against the prophet Muhammad and then the emotion takes over and that is the dangerous part.

Nobody stops to ask you: «Excuse me, is it true that you did this or said this?» Before you have the chance to defend yourself, everything becomes so emotional.

There have been cases where people have been killed. Those who have been killed for blasphemy, none of them have been killed by the law, by a process of trial.

In fact, we have a few cases that were released by the law; the case was dismissed. But we do have cases where Christians and even Muslims have been just beaten by a mob, killed, or murdered even, stabbed to death.

Q: If we change topic for a moment, there is a special love for the Holy Virgin Mary for Christians and Muslims. How is this in your diocese?

Bishop Coutts: Yes, not only in my diocese but overall because the Virgin Mary is mentioned in the Qur’an, the holy book of the Muslims, and the Muslims regard her as the Mother of the prophet Jesus as they see her, a very holy and pure person, but they would not give Mary the same honor and veneration as Catholics.

Q: What about you own devotion to Mary? Where did you learn it? Where your parents influential in your devotion to Mary?

Bishop Coutts: Yes, because I was born and grew up in a Catholic family; we are practicing Catholics, and in the big city of Lahore, where I was born and grew up, the house was just opposite the church; and at home, mother always insisted on the family rosary and as a boy I was in the junior Legion of Mary.

So I already had it and I grew up in an atmosphere that was such that the devotion to our Blessed Mother was very strong.

Q: Was this one factor that influenced your vocation to the priesthood?

Bishop Coutts: Well looking back, I don’t know if I can really focus on any one particular point about my vocation. I would broaden it much more.

We had th
e Belgian Capuchin Fathers working in our country. There are still a few of them left in Pakistan, and I was very impressed with their dedication and the way they dealt with us. I also studied in a Catholic school and we had the Irish Brothers teaching us.

We had annual retreats, and as I said earlier I had joined the Legion of Mary, so we had a lot of Catholic devotions and being not far from the church, my mother was very much involved with parish activities.

So it was an overall, I think, setting and with the milieu in which I was brought up that fostered this vocation in me. I wouldn’t say it was any one particular point really.

Q: Are you the only one of your brothers and sisters?

Bishop Coutts: No, they are not and in fact my brother was not to happy when I joined the seminary.

Q: Why not?

Bishop Coutts: Initially he said: «What? You are becoming a priest, are you serious?» [and that] kind of thing, but now they all appreciate it very much and to even my friends, it was: «You are becoming a priest, you mean it!» That’s it the others are not.

You know at that age, when you are in school you have a lot of ideals, and I was very keen on becoming a pilot. I like technical things and engineering either an aeronautical engineer because watching all these movies […] but there was one movie, now that you have mentioned it, about the «Life of St. Francis of Assisi» and at that time, I don’t know if you remember the name anymore, there was a Hollywood actor called Bradford Dillman, I think who use to play the role of a gunfighter or something and when he was there in the role of St. Francis of Assisi; I think that also had some sort of impact that there are other kind of heroes as well, not only wanting to be doing something like becoming a fighter pilot or something else, but there is another kind of heroism to which you can be called and I did have always in me wanting to help others.

I was, thank God, brought up in a family that was fairly well off; we never lacked anything. I got a good education. We had everything we wanted and I always wanted to help others.

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This interview was conducted by Marie-Pauline Meyer for «Where God Weeps,» a weekly television and radio show produced by Catholic Radio and Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.

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