The head of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Pakistan, Archbishop Joseph Coutts, has called on Christians to not violently react against Muslims.
In this exclusive interview with ZENIT this week in Rome, the Archbishop of Karachi spoke on the spirits of Pakistani Christians following the deadly Church attacks in Lahore two weeks ago, and how this may or may not shed light on the state of religious freedom for Christians in the majority-Muslim nation.
Archbishop Coutts also candidly speaks to ZENIT about the blasphemy law, how it also hurts Muslims, and what is often overlooked about the nation’s Muslims and their relationship with Pakistan’s Christians.
Moreover, the Pakistani Archbishop reflects on Pope Francis’ impact and what his pontificate means for addressing Pakistan’s interreligious challenges.
ZENIT: Could you speak about how the notion of religious freedom is realized in Pakistan?
Archbishop Coutts: In general, according to our Constitution, we have religious freedom. The only restriction is that the heads of state, the Prime Minister and the President, cannot be a non-Muslim, because we are officially an Islamic State. But we do not have all Islamic Laws, like Saudi Arabia or maybe Iran. We have the government of the military dictators…[of] Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. When he ruled for 11 years from 1977 to 1988, he tried to islamicize everything. And he introduced one or two Islamic laws, one of which is the Blasphemy Law, which is a cause of great concern for us. Many people have been killed because of this law, not by the law itself, but because it evokes many strong emotions because the law says ‘If anybody maligns the name of the Prophet Mohammed, speaks against him either by word or by misrepresentation, or in any other manner, the punishment will be death.’
Another law like this says, ‘If you desecrate the Koran, the Holy Book, then you can be imprisoned for life.’ Now, Christians are not speaking against Mohammed and they are not desecrating the Holy Book of the Muslims. But these laws can be very easily misused. And they are being misused. It is very easy to falsely accuse somebody. This is the danger. Then the emotions take over, and before the law can act or before the person can prove themselves innocent, many have been lynched or have been killed by mobs.
So we are struggling for many years now to modify these laws or to give us some security, but it is such an emotional matter that fanatic groups do not want to touch the law. They say, ‘No, it is to defend the honor of our Prophet and of the Holy Book,’ and that is causing us a lot of suffering.
In general, living in an Islamic society, we experience a lot of discrimination, especially when it comes to jobs and promotions, and so on. Another thing is that the Islamic concept, which is not official according to our government at all, but it is in the mind of many Muslims that a non-Muslim living in a Muslim country is somehow ‘less.’ He’s not equal. There is an Arabic word, ‘dhimmi,’ which expresses the idea that you are not equal politically or socially.
ZENIT: In the light of this discrimination, what do you think of the government’s role and what it does, or allows its people to do?
Archbishop Coutts: The positive side is that we are free to protest. We protest many times. Now, we have been working very hard, particularly our Commission for Justice and Peace and the bishops’ conference. For instance, the textbooks which are used in the government syllabus to teach in schools are not designed to teach the new generation how to live together with other religions, how to respect others. There are a lot of negative things in it.
But there is some success in this being realized. The government has taken notice of it. We are waiting for the new textbooks to be published. But as I said, we work together with the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, a very good independent body. Nearly all of them are Muslims. You see. There are many good NGOs. There are many good people. One of the bravest people in Pakistan, I would say, is a lady lawyer named Asma Jahangir. She has been threatened. She was president of the Human Rights Commission. She has spoken up about the misuse of the blasphemy law. We have a parliamentarian, Sherry Rehman, another lady. She was threatened because she wanted to introduce a bill in parliament to abolish the blasphemy law. She had to leave the country and she has come back now.
So there are many good people, but our task is to reach out to them. And to work together as Pakistani citizens, not just as Christians because these laws are dangerous, also for the Muslims. When you accuse someone, emotions take over.
It’s like saying to a Catholic: ‘Someone has desecrated the Blessed Sacrament, the Church.’ There would be a reaction. For us, there would be a reaction. We are very emotional people. And when it comes to religious matters, we really tend to react very strongly. And, for a Muslim, the prophet is very sacred, as is the Holy Book. So this is what happens. And, with a law like this, you don’t get a chance to prove your innocence. The law itself has not persecuted anybody so far.
Not all Muslims are fanatics. It’s a small group. And Pakistan, all along, has been a very moderate country. Now the danger is from these fanatic groups, linked with the Taliban and others, who are a danger to all the citizens of Pakistan, including the moderate Muslims.
ZENIT: Could you share an example of Christians and Muslims supporting each other recently?
Archbishop Coutts: We have the right to go to our Churches to worship. I was just mentioning that the day before yesterday, Sunday, for the evening Mass in my cathedral, while I was celebrating Mass for the big Sunday congregation, there was a big group of Muslims who came to express their condolences and solidarity. They joined hands together and stood in front of the Church, like a wall, to express that we are here to protect you, to say we do not agree with this terrorism that is attacking others. And they included university students, and people from civil society, people of good standing, who came there to express their solidarity. So, we have that also in Pakistan. There is a good side.
ZENIT: In light of the recent attacks in Lahore two Sundays ago, how would you say Pakistan’s Christians are doing? How are their spirits?
Archbishop Coutts: It was a big shock for all of us. We didn’t expect this to happen. And, as I said, what is very encouraging is the wave of sympathy we have experienced from the general population, from the non-Christian population as well. For example, I am from the big city of Karachi. We see this lot. The bar counsel of the high court sent a beautiful letter of condolences and of solidarity condemning such a thing. So that is there.
But where things have gone wrong is when the Christians themselves have reacted with violence, and put to death in a very brutal way two young men who they perceived were with the terrorists when they attacked, but that is causing now tension. Because now they are saying they were not with the terrorists, but the very fact that they have killed two Muslims—in a very brutal way, I repeat that–and even burned the bodies afterward, has created a tension now.
ZENIT: How do you believe Pope Francis is promoting the cause of the Christians in Pakistan and Asia?
Archbishop Coutts: Yes, he is promoting the cause of a lot of good things [smiling]. And you could list them all. And personally I think …Well, now that’s you’ve mentioned Pope Francis, you must know that when he spoke against total freedom—that the freedom of press must be used responsibly, they were so happy. They appreciated it so much. They said, ‘Thank God, somebody has spoken out.’
The largest political party [in Pakistan] is called the Muttahida Qaumi Movement [MQM]. The head of this political group is in the city of Karachi, which is a city of 20 million people. The head and his deputy came to me and said, ‘Bishop, we want to write a letter of thanks to the Pope… How do we write it? How do we address it? How do we get it to him?”
So, I said they had written this letter of thanks, and I sent it through the apostolic nuncio to the Holy Father to tell him how much this action of his is being appreciated because for many non-Catholics, the Pope is not only head of the Catholic Church, He is a very great spiritual leader. You would be surprised how many non-Catholics of different religions look to the Pope as a spiritual leader.
ZENIT: What final words would you like to share, whether they are words of encouragement and comfort for your people or if you have an appeal you would like to make known?
Archbishop Coutts: Yes, as president of our conference, on behalf of the Catholic bishops, I had put out a press release the very next day, appealing to the young men to not be overcome by emotion and not to destroy public property, or to do anything in which you are responding to violence with violence.
But unfortunately, there was this terrible incident that took place, but that has been our appeal to the people. Also, in Karachi itself we also had difficulty addressing the real passions of the young men, because it was something so emotional… It’s not the first time our Church has been attacked, so there is a lot of anger in the people.