Vatican: No Plans Yet for Pope Francis to Visit Pakistan

Denial follows speculation that the Pope may travel to India to canonize Blessed Mother Teresa.

(photo: Screenshot)

Contrary to media reports, Pope Francis has no plans to visit Pakistan — at least not yet.

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told the Register March 3 there is “currently no travel program to Pakistan being studied” after it was reported that the Holy Father had accepted an invitation from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, extended to him by two ministers at yesterday’s weekly general audience.

Shipping minister Kamran Michael and religious affairs minister Sardar Muhammad Yousaf told reporters yesterday that they had come to Rome “to ask the Holy Father to come to Pakistan and he agreed.” The Pope was grateful for the invitation but neither accepted nor declined, according to Vatican sources. As often happens, a government will invite the Pope to visit but because he doesn't immediately say no, his response is prematurely taken as a "yes".

In a press release, Aid to the Church in Need said the two ministers told Professor Shahid Mobeen, founder of the Association of Pakistani Christians in Italy, that Prime Minister Sharif has “much respect” for the Pope and “strongly desires the Pope to receive him in the country.”

They said there are “great expectations” in Pakistan that the Pope will visit the country where the Pope is understood to be “greatly appreciated”, also among Muslims who represent 96 percent of the population.

Part of the reason for the high hopes of a visit to the Indian subcontinent is speculation that the Holy Father could visit India in September to canonize Blessed Mother Teresa. The Pakistani government therefore wished to take the opportunity to invite the Pope to include Pakistan on any such visit.

But it’s not clear either if a papal visit to India is being discussed and so such a possibility is probably wishful thinking.

Any visit to Pakistan would come at a propitious time when the country’s small Christian minority (just 2 percent of the population) faces daily discrimination and persecution largely because of a so-called anti-blasphemy law.  “For us Christians of Pakistan, it would be a real blessing,” said Minister Kamran Michael. It would also probably help ensure the release of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian mother jailed in 2009 and subsequently sentenced to hanging under the anti-blasphemy law.  

A papal visit would present serious security challenges, however. When Pope St. John Paul II visited Karachi in 1981, just three months before an attempt on his life in St. Peter’s Square, a grenade exploded at a stadium where he was to celebrate Mass shortly before his arrival. The man carrying the grenade was killed. The security situation in the country has worsened since that time.  

Yesterday was the 5th anniversary since the assassination of Pakistan’s minister for religious affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti. Michael said Bhatti was “like a brother” to him, “a real charismatic leader, committed to the cause of making Pakistan a country where peace and harmony reign. And we continue the journey begun by him.”