ROME, APRIL 27, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Pakistan is a country with a population of 160 million, of which 95% are Muslim, with Christians making up a little less than 3% of the total population. The rise of militant Islam over the last years has given cause for concern where Christians feel insecure if not outright fearful. The Catholic Bishops Conference of Pakistan has repeatedly asked the government of Pakistan to act in defence of the religious minorities. Some of these bishops have indicated that a genuine martyrdom is taking place.
Mark Riedemann for Where God Weeps in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need interviews Auxiliary Bishop Sebastian Francis Shah, O.F.M, of the Archdiocese of Lahore.
Q: Your Excellency, you were born in a Christian village in the province of Sindh. Is it normal in Pakistan to divide villages according to religious affiliation?
Bishop Shah: Yes, I think one of the purposes is that Christians are a minority; being a minority we want to profess our faith, pray and practice our faith with freedom therefore, all the missionaries brought the people together into villages. The land was bought and given to the people so they could be more independent. They had businesses and schools and the church for worship. That was the purpose. We are integrated within our neighbouring villages but it is just only so that you have greater freedom to worship.
Q: When did you have your first experience of God?
Bishop Shah: My father died when I was very young. The [Dutch] Franciscan Fathers and Franciscan sisters from Malta were working in my village and they were all working tirelessly for the youth, for the development of the people, for the school children and to take care of the animals when they would get sick. I was very much inspired by them. My mother also told us many stories about saints and she always told me when I was an altar boy that an altar boy is like an angel; serving Father, the priest who replaces Jesus. He was like another Jesus and so being an altar boy is like an angel. It was from there that I developed the idea to become a missionary. My mother often told me the story of St. Sebastian who was martyred. So at that early age I was already thinking that someday, maybe, I will dedicate my life to the Church.
Q: So already at such a young age you had a sense of your vocation?
Bishop Shah: Yes, when I went to college, I had the desire to join but my mother would not allow me. I am the eldest boy. I was the second child in the family of four children, and the eldest was a girl, but I was the first boy and I had two younger brothers. My mother was a teacher and she often said that I was still needed in the family. I then went to see my uncle in Karachi who was a commander in the navy.
Q: … so either become a priest or join the navy?
Bishop Shah: It was the interview day for the navy and I prayed the whole night prior to the day of the interview. I went to the naval centre where the interview was going to be held. I arrived about half an hour early and I said to myself: ‘What am I going to do for the half an hour’? I then said: ‘Lord Please help me; either I join the navy today or I will become a priest’. I then went to St. Patrick’s Cathedral and sat on the last pew and there was a picture of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. As I was praying, I dozed off and fell asleep. I slept for more than half an hour, and when I woke up I went immediately to the naval recruitment centre and the doors of the office were already closed.
Q: God answered your prayer…
Bishop Shah: I was very upset. I thought my uncle would scold me and my gosh, what will happen? Yet at the same time, I was praying that the Lord would give my younger brothers a good job so that I would be free. That same week my younger brother came to Karachi – there were interviews from the Pakistan Steel Mills – and he got a job and after six or seven months my other younger brother came to Karachi and he also got a job.
Q: Your mother was then free to release you?
Bishop Shah: Yes, and then again a decision: whether to become a Franciscan priest or a diocesan priest. I prayed. That night I had a dream. There was this big road, a highway and I was coming from somewhere. The highway was a two-way and on the opposite side were a group of men. They were priests wearing the brown habit of the Franciscans. I stood there and they came and encircled me. I was in the middle and they asked me to pray with them. I did and said: ‘Holy, Holy, Holy Lord’. I knelt down and stood up. I then woke up from my dream. It was very clear. I also told this to my mother.
Q: …And she confirmed you?
Bishop Shah: Yes she did. She said: ‘Whatever you’ve been asking the Lord He has granted, so you are free. So if you want to serve the Church, you serve the Church’.
Q: You were ordained Bishop on February 14th and this prompted the Vicar General to say the Holy Father has given us a Valentines Day gift. What was your reaction?
Bishop Shah: I was actually very nervous and surprised. I did not want it, but I had been praying and praying about it. Whenever I went to pray in the chapel, I saw the Cross and whenever I looked at it I would feel this message: ‘Francis, go and build my Church’. Then in another sign, at the Karachi Friday Chapel, there is the picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and whenever I was there to pray and reflect, my eyes often would turn towards the Cross or the Sacred Heart and I always felt Jesus telling me: ‘Look at My Heart’.
Q: What is your Episcopal motto and why did you choose that particular motto?
Bishop Shah: I had been reflecting on my motto and the first thing that came to my mind was an ambassador of peace or channel of peace, like St. Francis. I chose it because nowadays, all over the world whether people are sitting at home or in the market place, work place or places of worship, people are very fearful. So then I said maybe the Lord wants me to bring some idea of peace and that is why I choose peace and make me a channel of peace. Every time I go anywhere or I go for confirmation I always say: ‘Lord make me a channel of peace’.
Q: Your Excellency, the Christians in Pakistan are a minority, less than 3% of the total population. How would you see your relationship with your Muslim compatriots?
Bishop Shah: In day-to-day life, Christians and a Muslims work together. It is not a problem. We certainly feel that we are a minority but at the same time, we feel that we too are Pakistanis. We are all Pakistanis. The problem occurs when a religious group creates some problems; for instance, in certain remote areas where an Imam preaches a biased teaching. But otherwise, even when I was in school where the majority of the students were Muslims, we were good friends. We would exchange information about Jesus, the Bible, The Prophet and the Koran. There was never a problem. It is only very recently that we feel a problem surfacing in our inter-relationships with the Muslims and we have to be very careful. People working in offices never discuss religion, which is a very new development and that is perhaps a good thing.
Q: …that religion should not take part of the day to day?
Bishop Shah: … they [Muslim] and we [Christians] know that we are still friends. The problem is those groups that create problems and in certain villages, this is more apparent. In Sind, where I am from, or in Karachi, you will not find religious biases or if it does exist, it is minimal. In Punjab and the other side of Pakistan, religious biases are very apparent. In certain areas, though it is quite uncommon, at a hotel, for instance, if you are discovered to be a Christian and you have used a teacup, the attendant will either beat you or he will break the teacup.
Bishop Shah: …because a Christian has touched the cup and the cup has been defiled; the cup should not be used again. In other words the cup has no right to exist, it is finished.
Q: How do international events impact on the Christian community in Pakistan?
Bishop Shah: One thing is very clear that we Pakistani Christians are considered allies of Western culture. We are linked together which is not just. I was born in Pakistan. I am Pakistani. I will live and die in Pakistan. We and they [Muslims] should understand that Christianity is not just a Western religion. Jesus Christ, after all, was from Asia and the Bible was written in Asia and so were the Gospels. So in this way we are Asians. The missionaries were of course from the West, from Europe, and Europe being a Christian continent, we are immediately associated with them, which is not true. Whenever something happens in Europe or America, we immediately feel the effects; we are persecuted. Events where a pastor in Florida threatens to burn the Koran, we were hoping that he would not do it. We were fearful; the Pakistani Bishops Conference wrote the Pakistani government assuring them that we were in solidarity with them and we wrote the US government, stating that we prayed it [the Koran burning] would not happen. I believe no person has the right to hurt the feelings, especially the religious feelings, of anyone because religion is sacred and is very dear to everyone.
Q: When the Pakistani Catholic Bishops Conference takes a position like this, does this reduce the tension within the local context?
Bishop Shah: Yes, and I appreciate most Pakistanis; they are moderate and they understand that Christians in Pakistan are a minority. They understand that we are a minority and poor. We – the Christians – are not big in business and we do not control the Pakistani government. We are a minority and we are poor.
Q: How do you evangelize in this kind of a context?
Bishop Shah: First, our mission is to be a witness to our Christian identity. In this way our evangelization is firstly with our faithful. We do not just evangelize the person but we feel that we have the responsibility to evangelize the whole society especially when there is injustice. We should help everybody through our schools and hospitals and other institutions. We try to bring the idea of truth and how society should be as well as the protection of human rights for everybody. People, certainly, although we are a minority, appreciate our efforts.
* * *
This interview was conducted by Mark Riedemann 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.
— — —
On the Net: