Father James Channan, O.P.—the former Vice Provincial of the Dominican order in Pakistan—is director of the Dominican-run Peace Center in Lahore, Pakistan, which is committed to deepening the knowledge of the faith of laity and clergy in the service of building interfaith ties with Pakistan’s Muslim majority, which accounts for 96% of the population of 196 million; the Christian population is just 2%, including 2 million Catholics.
The Friar was at the UN recently to receive the “Global Ambassador of Peace Award” from the Institute of International Social Development.
He spoke July 23, 2015, with international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need about Pakistan’s Supreme Court decision to hear the appeal of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who was sentenced to death in 2010 under the country’s controversial blasphemy law.
Q: Will Asia Bibi’s life be spared?
Father Channan: The Supreme Court of Pakistan has made a great move as her death sentence was put aside. The Supreme Court is going to review the entire case, including her death sentence. I firmly believe that justice will be done, that she will be proven innocent and that she will be released. The blasphemy law was used to settle a personal score—the accusation was an act of revenge.
Q: If she is freed, will her life be in danger?
Father Channan: Yes, unfortunately yes. Fanatics are determined to kill once someone is accused, regardless of the legal outcome of a particular case. Bibi won’t be able to stay in Pakistan and has to settle abroad. This of course has happened in a number of well-known cases in the past. Our people need to be educated and come to respect decisions of the courts of law.
Q: How many Christians are currently in prison accused of blasphemy?
Father Channan: According to my estimate, there are 130 Christians whose trials are proceeding. But people will be surprised to learn that there are about 950 Muslims currently held under the law. The law is far more enacted against Muslims, and very often it is a tool to settle business disputes or personal vendettas.
But there is a big difference between accusations of Muslims and Christians: if one Muslim is accused, just one Muslim is accused. But in the case of a Christian being accused, an entire community, an entire neighborhood is accused. And in several cases the entire Christian village or a Christian neighborhood has been burned to ashes.
Q: Do you have hope that Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy law will ever be repealed?
Father Channan: That will not happen. It is a very delicate and sensitive matter; extremist groups are very attached to it. But certain safeguards can be put in place. The misuse of the law should be stopped, such as its use to settle personal scores or to further business purposes. Those who bring false accusations should be punished—and this idea is also being supported by a growing number of Muslims, including some top leaders.
Q: What is your most important mission in Pakistan today?
Father Channan: To promote peace, build trust and mutual respect between Christians and Muslims. The goal is equal rights for all citizens—and we are making some progress. For example, several key Muslim religious leaders and scholars have become part and parcel of Christian-Muslim dialogue. These include two prominent Muslim religious leaders in Lahore: Hafiz Tahir Mehmood Ashrafi, chairman of the Pakistan Ulama Council—which oversees 60,000 mosques and 10,000 Madrasa schools throughout the country; and Maulana Abdul Khabir Azad, Grand Imam of the fifth largest mosque in the world, the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore. These men also support the punishment of those who bring false accusations under the anti-blasphemy law.
Our joint efforts are bearing forth much fruit—it is a path of love—but we need to do much more and enhance our dialogue activities throughout Pakistan. Without dialogue there is no future of the Church in Pakistan.
Q: Do you believe then in a moderate Islam?
Father Channan: Yes, I do. Pakistan is an Islamic state, but the rights of all minorities should be respected. We have to work toward that—Christians alongside Muslims. The government could also do a lot more in terms of revising the Constitution and striking those provisions that relegate Christians—and other religious minorities, such as Hindus, Sikhs, Zoroastrians and Baha’i—to second-class citizen status. Government should use the media to change the people’s mindset—to promote tolerance.
Today, however, Christians live in a state of fear because of all the recent violence. And they have no option of emigrating anywhere! Therefore, we need to somehow find a way to work with the Muslim majority—hence, building bridges between the communities is of vital importance, however long it takes. And Pakistan’s Catholic Church is on the forefront of this process.
Q: What about the freedom of a Muslim to convert to Christianity?
Father Channan: It is a very sensitive issue. A Muslim who converts to the Christian faith comes under enormous social pressure. Conversions are dangerous if they are publicly known—the convert’s life is in danger and so is the life of the priest who oversees the conversion, for example.
Aid to the Church in Need is an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See, providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries. www.churchinneed.org (USA); www.acnuk.org (UK); www.aidtochurch.org (AUS); www.acnireland.org (IRL); www.acn-aed-ca.org (CAN)