NEW YORK — Christians have lived in Pakistan ever since St. Thomas the Apostle planted the faith there in the first century. But today, they are enduring new conditions of persecution fanned by Islamist extremism.
However, the situation is not without hope. Archbishop Sebastian Shaw of the Catholic Archdiocese of Lahore, who traveled to New York as a guest of Aid to the Church in Need, told the Register that Pakistani Christians are realizing that God gave them a special calling to be his witnesses and work for the human rights and dignity of all in their country.
Despite their difficulties, greatly heightened after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the archbishop said Christians have made positive progress, thanks to ongoing public dialogue carried out by Muslim, Christian, Hindu and Sikh leaders. But with the support of the faithful worldwide, the Church’s work as peacemakers in Pakistan will bear fruit both for Christians and Pakistani society.
What is the overall situation of the Church in Pakistan?
It's a time of difficulty, a time of some misunderstanding, because, after 9/11, many people in Pakistan started thinking that Christians in Pakistan are allies to America or to the West. So, in this way, problems started. But, anyhow, at another time, these terrorist groups started attacking our churches, our schools, our institutions: The situation became quite dark and difficult.
But now, in the last couple of years, through our interreligious dialogue, we are able now to talk, to share our thoughts and ideas, about our being in Pakistan and being a Pakistani. So, in this way, we had to explain again and again to our society that Christians in Pakistan historically played a very vital role in the creation [of the state], and also for the fortification and for the progress of Pakistan. And still we are! This is what we are doing. One side, the difficulties are there, but at the same time, the struggle, the effort to make ourselves known to the society, and our role, though it is recognized, people know.
There is a strong hope that, in the future, the situation will be better.
Who are the interreligious partners who are helping to transmit this message to the rest of society?
In our interreligious dialogue group, we have Islamic scholars and also imams, some heads of big congregations, and also we have among us leaders from other churches, and also some Hindus and Sikhs. So, in this way, we come together at one table. We talk of what is common among all of us, and we hope to make a better society. It’s a big gesture, for example, when we started talking about coexistence and peaceful society. In the beginning, it was difficult, so then we started explaining that God has given us this planet to live in a peaceful way and made this planet a beautiful place, a livable place for everybody. We explained that God has given freedom to all, to choose the type of religion, whatever religion one wants.
So, in this way, there is some advancement. It was difficult, it’s a very slow process, but anyhow it is working, because it is a religious dialogue. It’s not a debate.
What feeds extremist violence against Christians in Pakistan?
Actually, there are some groups, like the Taliban, al-Qaida, now you know ISIS — these people do not believe in coexistence, so they believe that whoever is not with them, or does not think the way they think, should be killed. So that is what their own philosophy is, or maybe some religious ideology, and that is what feeds people. I don’t know all problems. We also realize that these people who are thinking this way, they target — a minority is often targeted, but they also target sometimes other sects in Islam. Sometimes Hindu temples are also attacked. So they are very one-sided.
Pakistan’s founding father, however, had a much different vision for the nation: a secular, not an Islamist, state.
The founder of Pakistan, Mr. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was very clear that Pakistan would be a very secular state. Muslims will be free to go to their mosques, Hindus to their temples, and Christians to their churches. So the state, as a state, would have no business with the faith of individuals.
Now, through our interreligious dialogue, lots of people are working more and more on human rights, and from people who talk more about how to make a better society, there are many efforts. Also, the Army is playing a very vital role to make Pakistan free from terrorists. Pakistan’s army also lost many very, very capable soldiers in this war against terrorism. So, in this way, the army of Pakistan, and all citizens of Pakistan, are working for peace in the country, to protect people wherever, [so they can live] in peace and harmony and without fear.
What do you think of Pakistan’s National Action Plan against extremism and terrorism?
The National Action Plan is a very effective, workable plan. For example, in that plan, the security of all citizens is assured, and also hate material, hate speeches are also abandoned. In this way, I think, slowly, it then ensures the [people’s] safety and security. And I think when people understand this now, people also desire to work and to have a better society, and also a better future for the children.
Does the Church’s role in educating children have a lot of possibilities for creating a peaceful, coexisting society?
We have many schools, and in all schools, we have nearly 90% Muslim students, and the rest are Christians and other minorities, like Hindus or Sikhs. In this way, school brings people together, and I always say that education is a social arena where students learn to live, to work and also to compete with one another. Sometimes, maybe the children fight, and they learn to be reconciled. This way, the Church plays a very vital role in making a harmonious society. This is also a life dialogue, not only a table dialogue — a life dialogue, where people learn from one another.
Where do you see the hopeful possibilities for Pakistani Muslim-Christian coexistence?
You know, we also, for example, are catechizing our young people, and also the media. I always tell our people that “You are born in Pakistan for a purpose. You are not born accidentally. So God has a special purpose for you; that is why you are born in Pakistan. So let us try to understand that purpose; otherwise, you would have been born in America, somewhere else — wherever.”
We are born in Pakistan to become instruments of peace, to become instruments of life. I always tell our young people, “Remember two Fs. The first F is: Do not live in fear, and the second is: Do not fight.” And this, also, Jesus told us when he gave us the new commandment to love one another. So, in this way, we educate our people, we train our people, for dialogue, and then also we give catechism to our young people, so that, in any society, when young people also know their religion, and they respect the religion of their parents and grandparents and their culture, then they’re able to have a dialogue.
How do Christians in Pakistan bear witness to the Gospel without seeking to convert Muslims?
It is how you witness. For example, if a person learns to be honest, then wherever he or she is, even in a bank, or a government office, or a teacher, wherever, that person has to be honest and.. Jesus said, “Go and share the Good News. Preach the Gospel.” So it is not only by mouth; it is the way we live. I think this is very important.
For example, if a person is convinced that Jesus said in the Gospel of Matthew, in the beatitudes, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” and one is convinced that “I am here to make peace, or to maintain or create peace,” then also, in all circumstances, one can find some way to maintain the peace, in the family and in society. This is what the biggest struggle is: If you believe that you are a peacemaker, you will do it.
A cause has been opened for Shahbaz Bhatti. What would his canonization do for Pakistan?
He will be a good example of courage and faith in all difficulties, with the way he lived and the life he gave for a noble cause, for human rights; to work for not only minorities’ human rights, but he was working for everybody’s human rights. So, in this way, he was an example for all, the government and private sector — a very model of faith living in our time.
Many wonder about the case of Asia Bibi, who is facing the death penalty under Pakistan’s blasphemy law. Is there hope for her case?
You know, now we are celebrating Easter — we are very hopeful that she will get justice. And though she is imprisoned, we hope she will get justice and one day will live outside the prison. This is what we hope.
How can the Church in the United States support the life and ministry of the Church in Pakistan?
One is prayer. The other is charitable institutions, like Aid to the Church in Need, because right now we have a big concern for security. Security concerns all of us. For years and years, we had boundary walls for the churches, cathedrals and schools. It was 5 feet, 4 feet, 6 feet in some places. And now, because of the fear of attacks, the government suggested to us to raise the walls, so the walls are now 8 feet, with razor wire over that, and CCTV cameras, and metal detectors at the walk through gates, and also security men, with guns.
At the same time, there were some natural disasters. There was a flood two years back, and many schools and houses were washed away. So, in these kinds of circumstances, because the Church in Pakistan [is in need], the majority of Christians are very poor and cannot support it, through Aid to the Church in Need, we can get help, re-establish schools and address other matters.
Thank you archbishop. As a final thought, what is your prayer for Pakistan?
My prayer for Pakistan, and for the whole world, the Middle East, is: Let us all, human beings, come forward and work for the dignity and respect of other persons and make a peaceful society, so that people may live, wherever they are, with dignity and respect. And then there will be, I feel, in the future no big mass migration of people. People in their own homelands will get justice, social justice, economic justice and equal opportunities for all, according to the talents of the person. So this is what I feel God has given all. Pakistan is a very rich country, in a sense; geographically we have rivers, plains, mountains and a sea — everything is there. Only when there is more justice in society, then people will not even think of migrating anyplace. This is what I pray; this is what I dream.
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.
More information: The Church gets no assistance from the government to implement these security mandates. The Church in Pakistan requires financial support to comply with the government’s required safety measures. To donate, go to Aid to the Church in Need.