Since February 2000 he has served as bishop of the Diocese of Multon, central Pakistan, and is the Vatican's point man on interreligious dialogue in that country.
He spoke with Register correspondent Andrew Walther in Los Angeles about his miraculous survival of two point-blank shootings and about the state of the Church in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
You were almost killed in 1998; what happened?
I was a priest based at St. Anthony Parish in Lahore, a parish noted for its prayer ministry. We had eucharistic adoration as well as regular devotions to the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Anthony and later Padre Pio.
Perhaps the fundamentalists did not like it. One day two non-Christian, Muslim men came to me and asked me to pray for them. As I stood up to pray for them, they stood close to me, one on either side, as I prepared to pray for them. I looked over and one of the men had a gun pointed at my head.
He fired, then the man on the other side also had a pistol, and he fired. Both bullets missed, and then I grabbed their hands and pushed their guns up into the air pleading with them not to kill, explaining that killing would do no good. They then hit me on the head with the pistol butts, and there was blood everywhere, and they left me for dead. Thank God they did not fire a third bullet.
I have no idea how they missed me from so close. I am a victim [of extremist violence], but I thank God, and Padre Pio, the Virgin Mary and St. Anthony for protecting me.
Are you personally in danger currently?
I doubt it, but we must carry on our work regardless. I am not afraid at all.
Tell me about the Church in your diocese and in Pakistan in general.
Pakistan is a country of 145 million people. The state religion is Islam and only about 1% of the population is Christian. There are six dioceses, and in mine there are 20 million people and 200,000 Catholics. I have 31 priests, 43 sisters, 48 catechists, nine brothers and one bishop – me.
What are the difficulties for Catholics currently living in Pakistan?
We live in a fundamentalist – I mean very fundamentalist – society. It has been even less tolerant since 9-11. The Taliban are infiltrating every part of society. There are many sharia [Muslim fundamentalist] laws that bring persecution to many. There are blasphemy laws, and conversion is forbidden by penalty of death. There is very little education and it is difficult for Christians going into higher education because at every level of society there is discrimination. There are many discriminatory laws, though the present government is doing its level best to put sense back into the legal system.
At one of the churches in my diocese several months ago, the Protestant congregation, which was using the church at the time because it did not have its own church, was attacked. Sixteen people died on the spot, and we dug more than 400 bullets out of the walls.
In the capital of Pakistan, Islamabad, on March 27 terrorists walked in with hand grenades and attacked a congregation. That church was probably targeted because it was attended by people from the American Embassy. [Five people, including two Americans, died in the attack].
In our situation there is no tolerance, only prejudice. These Muslims are taught this from a very young age. They are put into madrassas (fundamentalist schools), and from an early age are taught hatred and prejudice and are made talibans. In my area there are many such fundamentalist schools, and the children and women suffer the most under this yoke of poverty and ignorance.
How can you have interreligious dialogue in such an environment?
I have a very good liaison with the government, and we enjoy each other's cooperation. The government is trying to work on community and national unity, and it appreciates the work that I do. I have met with President Musharraf, and I visit the mosques and madrassas to discuss religion. The Muslim clergy in Pakistan condemned the attacks of Sept. 11. Although the extremist elements commit these acts of terror for their own good [purposes], Christians and Muslims have much to learn from each other.
With all of these problems, have there been successes for the Church in Pakistan?
Yes! Currently in my diocese we are focusing on lay and youth leadership, pastoral care and interreligious dialogue. Vocations have been very good, both to the diocesan priesthood and to religious life. The problem we have is how to support them.
The seminarians are good students – I know because I teach in the seminary. We have also opened many boarding schools, but again we need food support. These schools are one way of alleviating poverty, and English is taught in these schools because we need it for higher education. We are forming a lot of youth, but we have no transportation.
You mentioned that Padre Pio protected you from the attack in 1998. Is there much devotion to him in Pakistan?
I grew up in a Capuchin diocese, and I always had an attraction to Padre Pio's spirituality. While I was a priest at St. Anthony's Church in Lahore, a teen-age girl asked me to translate the magazine the Voice of Padre Pio from English into Urdu for her. She then began a devotion to Padre Pio on Thursdays. More people came on Thursdays than on the normal days. The girls wanted to organize a beatification event for Padre Pio, and they did. At the Railway Stadium, a football stadium in Lahore, more than 10,000 people, as well as bishops and priests, came to the event, thanks to this little group of children. And for the canonization in June, we had a huge Mass in my cathedral.
Padre Pio helped me in my own priestly life and helped me to bring more spiritual fervor to the people through adoration, the rosary, and total obedience to the Holy Father and the Church. I go forward with the hope that more people will know Padre Pio and that Muslims will know Padre Pio – that God can work wonderful things through this saint.
What can Americans do to help Pakistani Catholics?
Pray for us because we are under the ire of the Muslim fundamental-ists. What I dream is that people in the United States will adopt some of our people, help them get an education in the United States and then send them back. Also, people involved in medicine and education could help me. I want to open a school in the diocese that goes from elementary school to college – a prestigious school for Christians and non-Christians, because I believe Our Lord died for all.