“ACN can mobilize their world net-work of friends, benefactors and supporters to commit Nigeria to special prayers at this critical time of elections.”

Nigerians will be going to the polls on 16th February and 2nd March 2019 to elect a President, Federal Parliament and other representatives. Parts of the Country have continued to experience violence from the Muslim extremist groups such as Boko Haram. 

Aid to the Church in Need spoke with Mgr Ignatius Ayau Kaigama, Catholic Archbishop of Jos regarding the current situation, the forthcoming general elections in Nigeria and his hopes for the country. 

As the Country’s General Elections approach next weekend, what is the situation across the Country?

Mgr Kaigama:  Like every pre-election period everywhere in the world, political emotions here are high. Many politicians and their allies are politically paranoid. One hears of how easily some politicians switch from one political party to another which shows that their reason for being in politics is not motivated by good political principles or ideology or  people-friendly political manifestos, but mainly for personal interests. Most of them are hardly concerned about good governance and improving the lot of the common person, especially the poor, marginalized, unemployed, victims of religious extremism and the millions who are also victims of the poisonous by-products of pandemic corruption.

Compared to previous pre-election campaigns,  the present campaigns even though have recorded some casualties are fairly moderate, but what stands out is the sometimes wild and unsubstantiated statements made by some politicians that could be regarded as hate speeches or incitements to violence.

While a few political rallies have already recorded a few accidental deaths and the disruption of peace, we must commend the campaigns of most of the parties that have carried out their activities peacefully. There is however a general tension and apprehension as to what may be the likely reactions of those who already feel that there might be manipulations of the elections.

Mgr.Ignatius Kaigama, Archbishop from Jos (Nigeria) and President of Conference Episcopal from Nigeria.

Mgr.Ignatius Kaigama, Archbishop from Jos (Nigeria) and President of Conference Episcopal from Nigeria.

Attacks by Boko Haram have intensified lately. Do you think this is connected to the elections?

Mgr Kaigama:  Even before now, Boko Haram has intensified its attacks by killing a number of military personnel. The insurgents have become so daring as to take on armed personnel and to inflict heavy casualties on them and not even sparing International Aid workers. They boldly warn the international community to stay off their track. They are doing their best to take over certain parts of Nigeria and neighbouring countries to consolidate their quest for the Islamic State of West Africa.

Attacks by Boko Haram have surprisingly intensified in the last couple of days in areas like Michika, Shuwa, Madagali, Mubi, – in Borno and Adamawa States. Some people say that the renewed attacks are politically motivated or sponsored to score political points or may be an attempt to disenfranchise some of the electorate during the elections. It is clear however that Boko Haram wants to make a statement that it has not been defeated. The threat by Boko Haram is still real. They are far from being defeated.

Do you have any concerns?

Mgr Kaigama: I should be concerned. When peace is disrupted, Catholic religious leaders like me suffer more than those elected into government because people flock to our houses and offices knowing that there are no gun-wielding police or soldiers to scare them off or police dogs to sniff and bark at them when they come to ask for help for the basic things of life.  We have to manage to assist those who are displaced and without means of livelihood. Because of how overstressed and overwhelmed we religious leaders become when there are crises, we pray  and work very hard to proactively promote the culture of peace and we are making concerted efforts to ensure that we have free and fair elections which will culminate in peace for all.

If the elections are marred by violence many innocent Nigerians will pay the prize.  I hope for fair, peaceful and credible elections; for good, patriotic, selfless and God-fearing leaders to emerge, who will be more concerned about the masses rather than their personal ambition and luxury of office.  Well-formed and qualified youths are on the streets in huge numbers without jobs. We hope that those aspiring to offices at all levels will consider the plight of the youth as a priority.

Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama is witnessing the signing of the document called "Plateau Peace Commitment in view of the 2019 general elections". It was signed by the governourship Candidates in Plateau States and witnessed by traditional/religious heads, civil society groups, senior security personnel and various community stakeholders.

Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama is witnessing the signing of the document called “Plateau Peace Commitment in view of the 2019 general elections”. It was signed by the governourship Candidates in Plateau States and witnessed by traditional/religious heads, civil society groups, senior security personnel and various community stakeholders.

What role is the Church playing to contribute to the proper conduct of elections?

Mgr Kaigama: As the Catholic Church in Nigeria does during every election, our Justice Development and Peace Commission (JDPC) is proactive and highly sensitive to the need for peaceful and fair elections. The JDPC has served creditably as election monitors/observers in the past, pointing out flaws, weaknesses and strengths witnessed. A statement has recently been issued by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria encouraging prayers, proper conduct of elections and correct attitudinal approach by citizens to the elections.

The Church in the Archdiocese of Jos has been frantically multi-tasking as a way of contributing to the peaceful elections. We have cautioned our members to be law abiding, to go on peacefully and not to allow themselves to be used by selfish politicians. They must ensure that they possess their voters’ card and go out to vote. As priests, we encourage our people to be prayerful and alert during this season; we caution ourselves the clergy to remain non-partisan. Our Justice, Peace and Development Commission has in the past two years been running projects in target communities for peaceful elections. They have taught different communities what to ask for by training them on the ‘Charter of Demands’ when the politicians come looking for their votes. Our JDPC has organized trainings on peace-building and Alternatives to Violence Programmes (PB/AVP) in schools and communities. As part of the activities leading to the elections, our Dialogue Reconciliation and Peace (DREP) Centre recently organized a peace accord signing ceremony for all the governorship candidates in Plateau State, which was witnessed by traditional/religious heads, civil society groups, senior security personnel and various community stakeholders. Also, going into the elections, as a Church our JDPC is officially accredited as election observers. We are equally prepared to intervene and manage post-election violence should it occur. We pray it doesn’t.

What are your hopes for Nigeria?

Mgr Kaigama: I am a strong optimist. I believe strongly that the best for Nigeria lies somewhere close by. I am deeply patriotic about my country Nigeria. There are so many negative things said about Nigeria but I believe that Nigeria with all her defects and imperfections will surprise the world one day, leaving those who ridicule and write her off spell-bound and flabbergasted. Nigerians are a peaceful, joyful, hardworking, religious and resilient people who are only unfortunate not to have selfless leaders with vision but leaders who take joy in pilfering the enormous wealth God has blessed us with. This, they do with the collaboration of some foreign countries, companies, organizations and individuals.

Many like me believe that Nigeria will survive as one nation and one people. The time is coming nearer when a moral revolution by the youths, transcending tribe and religion will bring into leadership only serious persons who are prepared to suffer and even lay down their lives for Nigeria and Nigerians rather than asking the poor people to die for them (political leaders). Those who manipulate elections, buy votes, use government structures to win elections, announce losers as winners and winners as losers will sooner than later have nowhere to hide.

Mgr. Ignatius Kaigama celebrates Mass at the brasilian ACN office.

Mgr. Ignatius Kaigama celebrates Mass at the brazilian ACN office.

How can ACN and her benefactors help Nigeria at this time?

Mgr Kaigama: ACN can mobilize their world net-work of friends, benefactors and supporters to commit Nigeria to special prayers at this critical time of elections. We need support our various peace-building, awareness raising initiatives and various proactive programmes of peace education organized before, during and after elections. Furthermore support for training/empowerment programmes for our youth, teenage girls and widows is needed, to give them hope and to keep them out of trouble.

Above all, let us be in communion of prayers for peaceful elections and general stability, hoping that by God’s grace the forthcoming elections will produce visionary leaders who will lift this promising country from grass to grace.

Joseph Arshad, archbishop of Islamabad-Rawalpindi and president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Pakistan, discussed the situation of the Catholic church in Pakistan with Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) during a visit of the foundation to his country. Catholics are a minority, representing just 2% of the country’s population. The Pakistani church has placed its hope for the future in giving the people a good education so that they can earn the respect of others. The objective is to change the image that other religions have of Catholics. Most Catholic families are poor and labour in slave-like conditions. The overwhelming majority of Catholics cannot read or write.

Joseph Arshad, archbishop of Islamabad-Rawalpindi and president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Pakistan.

Joseph Arshad, archbishop of Islamabad-Rawalpindi and president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Pakistan.

 What are the origins of the church in Pakistan?

According to tradition, St. Thomas the Apostle introduced the Gospel to this region. His journeys took him all the way to India, through territories that, up until a few centuries ago, were once shared by Pakistan and India. It is said that St. Thomas followed the route of Alexander the Great on his way to southeastern India, passing through present-day Pakistan, where ancient Christian communities still exist today. The old city of Taxila is located close to what is now Islamabad. There, excavations from Greek and later times brought to light the remains of a cross chiselled into stone, which has been attributed to St. Thomas. The cross is currently being preserved in the Cathedral of Lahore.

What happened after St. Thomas the Apostle?

In the 16th century, this region was part of the Mongolian Empire. At the time, a king by the name of Akbar invited several priests to explain Christianity to his royal household. Several Jesuit missionaries accepted his invitation. The king gave his permission for two churches to be built in Lahore, which, however, were destroyed by later kings. Finally, a new wave of evangelisation took place in the 18th century, at the beginning of the rule of the British Empire. The church entered a new heyday. Catholic chaplains from the British army began to carry out missionary work among the people. This set off a new era that continues to this day.

How did you discover your calling to the priesthood?

My grandparents were already Catholic. For this reason, I was born into and raised in a Catholic family. They passed the faith on to me. There was a parish church close to my school that my friends and I attended. I was either a reader or an acolyte during Eucharistic mass. Sometimes we travelled through the parish to visit the Christian families who lived scattered across the region, to help them in their need. Little by little, I grew more familiar with the way of life of the priests and recognised that God was calling me to be like them, to serve God and the community. At seminary, we carried out pastoral work. For a while, I visited the Christian villages. I saw that life was very difficult there and said to myself, “Their lives are very difficult. I could not live like this. My life may not be easy, I also have things that trouble me. But the problems these people face are even greater. If I were a priest, I could help my neighbours and bring these people hope.”

"When Christians are educated and have had professional training, then the image of our community will change".

“When Christians are educated and have had professional training, then the image of our community will change”.

What do you consider to be the most important thing that you have learned?

The faith of the ordinary people has strengthened me in my faith. I learned to love the church through the love of the people. They ask for our presence, our help, our leadership. I am very happy to be a priest. I thank God every day for this. The ordinary people were actually the ones who taught me that God is a vital aid, that there is always hope with Him.

What does the future of the church in Pakistan look like?

The Catholic church is focusing on priestly formation. We need good and well-educated priests and religious. In addition, our community has to have access to education. When Christians are educated and have had professional training, then the image of our community will change. We are also trying to create better Christian families, in which spouses treat each other with respect and love and parents recognise the importance of educating their children. The aid that we receive from ACN in these areas is absolutely indispensable.

And what is the status of vocations to the priesthood and to a consecrated life?

Thank God that there are both vocations to the priesthood and to a consecrated life, particularly in the small villages with Christian majorities. In my bishopric, there are currently 35 candidates to the priesthood. There are also 20 novices at the house of formation of the Dominican sisters that is located next to the cathedral.

 What are the special needs of the church in Pakistan?

As I have already mentioned, education is of prime importance. Many people cannot continue their education, either because there are no schools or no money. Most of the students in Christian schools are Muslim. Our schools are open to all. However, we need more schools. The church was once highly regarded and esteemed because of its schools. Nowadays, the population and the cities have grown by leaps and bounds. Our institutions have other challenges to face. Moreover, we once had a large number of missionaries from other countries. Now that the Pakistani church is becoming more and more a local church, we receive less support from outside. We also have great financial problems that make it difficult to continue with our mission.

Bishop Paul Hinder is Apostolic Vicar for southern Arabia. As such, the Swiss Capuchin monk will host the pope when he sets out for Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates this Sunday. Aid to the Church in Need spoke with him about tolerance in everyday life, a lack of religious freedom and the expectations for the papal visit.

Your Excellency, Pope Francis will soon be visiting Abu Dhabi. Would it be an exaggeration to speak of a historic visit?

No. The visit can be called historic for two reasons in particular: first of all, this will be the first time in church history that a pope will visit the Arab Peninsula. Second of all, it will be the first time that the Eucharist will be celebrated on public property that the government has placed at our disposal for this purpose.

Bishop Paul Hinder, Apostolic Vicar Southern Arabia.

Bishop Paul Hinder, Apostolic Vicar Southern Arabia.

You are expecting over 130 000 faithful, who will openly come together for the Papal Mass. That would be inconceivable in neighbouring Saudi Arabia. Churches do not even exist there. Why are things different in the United Arab Emirates?

How much freedom of worship is granted, that is, the possibility of celebrating divine services as a congregation, varies in each of the countries of the Arab world. While in Saudi Arabia divine services are only tolerated when held in private in relatively small groups, in other countries, particularly here in the United Arab Emirates, churches have been built and are visited by thousands of worshipers each week, even daily, to celebrate mass. This freedom to celebrate divine services usually depends upon the openness and tolerance of the respective rulers. Over the last few decades, this could be found particularly in Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates as well as Oman.

So the rulers of the United Arab Emirates have a relatively open attitude towards Christians. Is this shared by the general population?

I have been living in Abu Dhabi for the last 15 years and have never experienced any animosity. Of course we know that in all Islamic countries, non-Muslims – not only Christians – have to comply with the social laws of Islam. On the other hand, I see a deep respect for Christians, also among the local population. This is even more apparent now in the run-up to the papal visit.

How?

A number of Muslims have contacted me to ask how they can help prepare for the visit. Many have expressed an interest in attending the Mass. The government is also doing everything in its power to ensure that as many of our faithful as possible will be able to see the pope.

Does this willingness to help also have something to do with the popularity of Pope Francis?

The reactions of the Muslim population to the election of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as Pope Francis were only positive. This is also evident right now. Since the announcement of his visit was made, I have only noticed signs of joy and pride that the pope is coming to the Emirates.

What made this visit possible?

There are various reasons for this visit. Over the past few years, a number of different invitations were sent to the pope from all over the region, including the UAE. The local church also communicated its desire to have the pope stop over here.

The church in the Emirates is made up of only foreigners, in particular foreign workers. What kind of problems do you face as bishop because of this?

One of the critical pastoral problems lies in strengthening our people in their faith and encouraging them to bravely retain their Christian and Catholic identity and profess to the faith even in an environment that does not always make this easy. I am thinking about the domestic workers and construction workers who not only have to work hard each day, but sometimes also have to deal with the missionary zeal of Muslim employers or colleagues.

What happens when a local Muslim wants to convert to Christianity?

I am not aware of any Muslim country that allows full religious freedom. Even in those where converting a Muslim to another religion is not punishable by law, at the very least the person’s social circle, in particular his or her family, will react with ostracism or even physical violence. As I said already, freedom of religion is greater or lesser depending upon the country.

Do you have enough churches and priests?

More churches would be desirable, as the number of our parishes is still not commensurate with the number of believers. In the United Arab Emirates, for example, we have nine parishes, which is definitely not enough for the almost one million Catholics living in the country. Furthermore, it also needs to be taken into consideration that, in contrast to the other churches, our members are international, speak different languages and follow different Catholic rites. A further pastoral challenge arises from the fact that, due to their situations as migrants, many of our faithful are facing moral issues that they would never have believed they would have to deal with. This is particularly common among those men and women who live apart from their spouses because of work, often for periods longer than a year. It is not uncommon for marriages to break up when they begin new, “temporary” relationships.

Pope Francis will soon be visiting Abu Dhabi.

Pope Francis will soon be visiting Abu Dhabi.

How can the papal visit help to improve the situation of Christians in the Islamic world?

I hope that the visit of the pope will be able to change the overall mood for the better. However, it would be a mistake to expect too many miracles from this kind of visit. The decisive thing is that we Christians are credible witnesses of the message of Christ. And that also means accepting with humility that we will never play first fiddle in this society. It is sometimes enough to be able to play a simple recorder with sufficient proficiency to delight others!

Therefore, it may very well be that the papal visit will result in little more than a shared cup of coffee and pretty pictures?

It remains to be seen if the visit will leave any kind of lasting impression. In English we say that one swallow does not make a summer. A dialogue with another religion and its representatives takes time and patience and setbacks are unavoidable. This is also true for ecumenism within Christianity. Even if all that is achieved is greater mutual respect and this makes it possible to work together in problem areas that affect all the religions, then progress has been made. You only need to think about the challenges in the commitment to peace or in the care for our common home of creation.

Marco Mencaglia, head of the Latin America section of Aid to the Church in Need, visited Nicaragua in November. The objective of his trip was to learn more about conditions in the country first-hand and to assess how the pontifical foundation has worked with the local church up until this point and how they can continue to work together.

 Last year, Nicaragua experienced a series of intensive and violent clashes between the government and opposition groups that lasted for about three months from 18 April to mid-July. During this period, the clashes claimed hundreds of lives – most of them young protesters. However, the exact number of victims is disputed: the government has estimated 150 dead, other sources say the figure is over 500.

 The Catholic Church played a decisive role in ensuring that the clashes between the armed government forces and the protesters – most of them students – did not cause even more casualties, both dead and wounded.

 “One of the things that the Nicaraguan Church has said time and again is that the only way out of the crisis is through dialogue and by supporting a process that guarantees legal certainty, and channels the energy of young people for the good of the country. It is important to avoid starting new conflicts and to involve all of the relevant social actors in the country,” Mencaglia said in an interview after he returned from his visit to the Central American country. “I would even go so far as to say that there is no peaceful way out of the current situation without the involvement of the Church. At a spiritual and social level, the Church continues to play a decisive and unique role in Nicaragua as it moves along the difficult path to healing the deep wounds left by the conflict that raged from April to July.”

 Mencaglia also addressed the difficult situation that young Catholics face. He was often told during his visit, “Young and Catholic is a dangerous thing to be in Nicaragua today.”

 The following is a transcript of the interview:

 What is the current situation in Nicaragua?

Although officially, there have not been any further violent clashes since July, the political climate in the country remains extremely tense. At this time, the fate of the young people has yet to be decided. Hundreds of them are still incarcerated in prison for political reasons relating to the suppression of the protests. Less blatant forms of discrimination also have a negative impact on life in the country.

Marco Mencaglia, head of the Latin America section of Aid to the Church in Need, visited Nicaragua in November.

Marco Mencaglia, head of the Latin America section of Aid to the Church in Need, visited Nicaragua in November.

What role did the Catholic Church play during this time?

Many people deplore the absence of the basic requirements for democracy. The Catholic Church is playing a decisive role in finding a peaceful solution for the conflict because it is an institution that is deeply rooted in society.

After the first protests, the government asked the Church to play a mediating role. However, the dialogue was aborted by the government after eight meetings. A fierce campaign was initiated by government circles to discredit the Catholic Church. Strong allegations were made against Church leaders and the Catholics were called “putschists” and “terrorists”. At the same time, measures were taken to keep tabs on everything the priests said and did. Thus, for example, the content of Sunday sermons is monitored closely and passed on to the government by agents. In addition, it is said that concrete and in part violent measures are being taken at a local level to discriminate against persons who are suspected of having provided some form of material support for the protests, even if they were not directly involved in the clashes. Over the course of our visit, one sentence came up again and again: “Young and Catholic is a dangerous thing to be in Nicaragua today.”

What impressed you most during your trip?

The courage of the Church as it worked to prevent even more violence during the months of conflict. The protest organisers closed off the main roads in many regions of the country, bringing life to a standstill in the country for weeks. We saw many photos showing priests in particularly tense situations, standing with arms raised between armed government forces who were about to take down blockades by force, and protesters who had resolved to show resistance. By risking their own lives, these priests, most of them young men, saved the lives of many young people on both sides of the conflict. They prevented the street blockades from ending in violence. Many of the churches took in hundreds of wounded, converting church buildings into makeshift field hospitals.

In spite of the campaign to discredit the Church, recent, independent surveys have shown that the Church as an institution continues to enjoy a very high level of credibility. The number of vocations to the priesthood continues to rise practically everywhere in the country. Each year, new parishes are founded in different dioceses. Others are adding to the number of centres for lay education. The number of applications received from people interested in taking part in educational courses offered by the Church is also growing. The last diocese to be founded in Central America is located in Nicaragua: the diocese of Siuna, established in late 2017.

 Mgr Jorge Solórzano Pérez, Bishop of Granada, during the distribution of a meal for the poor of the city - Poor man wearing a T-Shirt with the slogan "Nicaragua loves Jesus".

Mgr Jorge Solórzano Pérez, Bishop of Granada, during the distribution of a meal for the poor of the city – Poor man wearing a T-Shirt with the slogan “Nicaragua loves Jesus”.

Is there a way out of the crisis?

The Nicaraguan Church has said time and again that the only way out of the crisis is through dialogue and by supporting a process that ensures that the fundamental rules of democracy – free and fair elections – are respected, and that channels the energy of young people for the good of the country. It is important to avoid starting new conflicts and to involve all of the relevant social actors in the country. I would even go so far as to say that there is no peaceful way out of the current situation without the involvement of the Church. At a spiritual and social level, the Church continues to play a decisive and unique role in Nicaragua as it moves along the difficult path to healing the deep wounds left by the conflict that raged from April to July.

What does the Nicaraguan Church need?

First of all, the local Church has to remain unified. In spite of the great differences in personal biographies, attitudes and pastoral contexts, the bishops have always been able to show a remarkable solidarity with one another. It is necessary to pray for the people who have distanced themselves from the Church for political reasons, that they may return to the community of the Church. These are difficult processes that quietly continue to move forward in spite of the many problems. During these precarious times, the Nicaraguan Church needs to feel the solidarity of the world Church in prayer and its ongoing attention.

Chapel in Nicaragua.

Chapel in Nicaragua.

What help can ACN provide through the involvement of its benefactors?

In response to the remarkable increase in vocations, beginning in 2019 the Church in Nicaragua has decided to set up new philosophical seminaries for candidates to the priesthood at a regional level. These will be in addition to the existing diocesan seminaries in Managua and Granada as well as the national seminary in Managua, where students from the five other state districts can continue their theological studies. The new, improvised seminaries will need worthy facilities to be able to accommodate the young students.

Furthermore, ACN is assisting in the process of founding new parishes in various dioceses of the country by building small churches and parish houses. These are being built in isolated areas and the communities are happy to finally have a priest living among them. Quite often we have witnessed how the presence of a priest can change the life in a village in Nicaragua: in addition to his liturgical and sacramental duties, the priest is often a point of orientation in the day-to-day life of the entire community.

ACN also offers support for the formation of young lay people. As we mentioned above, during the protests young Catholics became the targets of the most severe attacks. They were robbed of their rights, threatened, thrown into prison and beaten. Many of them fled the country to seek refuge abroad. Many others lost their jobs because of the economic crisis and have no prospects for the future. We have to reach out to these young people so that their wounds can heal and they can discover the love of God in spite of all their suffering and anger.

Dominican Father James Channan has been working to establish a dialogue between Christians and Muslims for years – in a country in which acts of violence against the infinitesimally small minority of Christians are a regular occurrence and any perceived criticism of Islam is subject to draconian punishments under the blasphemy law; Asia Bibi was not an isolated case. Father Channan is head of the Peace Center located in the city of Lahore in Pakistan.

During a visit to the headquarters of the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), Father Channan talked about the impact of the blasphemy laws, propitious developments in the Islamic world, and the future prospects of Asia Bibi in an interview with Tobias Lehner.

Tobias Lehner: The fate of Asia Bibi has given the world a face to associate with the perilous situation of many Christians in Pakistan. After years on death row, she was acquitted of blasphemy charges in late October 2018 and released from prison. What can you tell us about the current situation?

Father James Channan: The situation of the Christians in Pakistan is alarming. They live in fear and uncertainty. This situation has not changed since the 1970s, when legislation in Pakistan began to be based on Islamic Sharia law. Radical Muslims are misusing the controversial blasphemy law in particular to settle personal scores. Anytime Christians are accused of supposed blasphemy, all Christians in the region are indicted with them. This often leads to acts of violence against Christians.

Father James Channan, head of the Peace Center located in the city of Lahore in Pakistan.

Father James Channan, head of the Peace Center located in the city of Lahore in Pakistan.

And that is exactly what happened in the case of Asia Bibi. She was on death row for nine years on charges of blasphemy. Even now, after her acquittal, she is anything but safe. Radical Islamists are trying to find her so that they can kill her. That is why she is currently under state protection. We hope that the supreme court will soon confirm her acquittal and refuse to grant permission to appeal. Then she will hopefully be able to leave the country and live in freedom.

Asia Bibi is not an isolated case. What can you tell us about the fate of Christians who are also facing charges of blasphemy?

According to a report of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Pakistan, there are 187 other cases of Christians facing charges of blasphemy. One of these is the case of the married couple Shafqat Masih and Shagufta Bibi. I visited them on death row. They have been accused of sending blasphemous text messages, which the couple denies. Their prospects are very bleak. Even should they be acquitted, they and their children will no longer be able to live in Pakistan. Fanatic Muslims will try to kill them. The blasphemy law destroys the lives of those who have been accused, even if they avoid being executed.

Following the acquittal of Asia Bibi we saw pictures of an angry mob that continued to call for her execution. In view of this, is there even a chance of religious freedom for Christians living in Pakistan?

It seemed as though at any moment, a group of militant Muslims would bring the entire country to a standstill. However, militant Islam does not hold the majority in Pakistan. The country has a fraction of about 10 to 15 per cent of radical Islamists who are provoking people to violence. The majority of Muslims do not follow these agitators. They are advocates for religious freedom, also for Christians. Both Christians and Muslims were greatly relieved when Pakistani security forces recently arrested more than 1000 Islamists. Cracking down on extremism was the right thing for the government to do. And I hope that this will continue.

Aid to the Church in Need has been working with you for many years. From a European standpoint, there is little one can do to change the situation. Does the aid actually make a difference for the Christians in Pakistan?

The support provided by ACN plays a crucial role in ensuring that the church in Pakistan can continue to proclaim the faith and promote a dialogue. The assistance has allowed us to build many bridges between Christians and Muslims. We want to demonstrate that the different religions have nothing to fear from one another. A large number of Muslim clerics, including the Grand Imam of the second largest mosque in Pakistan, are a fixed part of our programme at the Peace Center in Lahore and close friends. I am convinced that the foundation for a good and peaceful future can only be built by establishing a dialogue between Christians and Muslims.

The President of the Pakistani Bishops’ Conference insists that interfaith dialogue is vital for peace in his country

Archbishop Joseph Arshad of Islamabad-Rawalpindi is also the president of the Episcopal Conference of Pakistan. But his extensive responsibilities do not prevent him from being at the same time close to the poorest and most needy. He was interviewed by the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International) during a recent visit to the cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Faisalabad. The recent high-profile case of Asia Bibi, the Christian woman accused of blasphemy and held for almost 8 years on death row until her acquittal just a few weeks ago, underlines the reason why the Catholic Church is so insistent on the need for interreligious dialogue and working for peace in a country torn by the scourges of extremism, corruption and terrorist violence.

 

Archbishop Joseph Arshad of Islamabad-Rawalpindi

Archbishop Joseph Arshad of Islamabad-Rawalpindi

 

What is the present situation of the country, following the election of a new government and a new Prime Minister last August?

The new Prime Minister Imran Khan is attempting to tackle a number of extremely serious problems in the country, including unemployment, especially among young people, corruption and rapid population growth. Pakistan already has a population of over 200 million inhabitants. Khan’s election slogan was “Let us eliminate corruption”. It was a message that chimed well with the population, who have seen how the economic resources of the country and the money intended for education and healthcare have been siphoned off. We believe that it could be a good opportunity to move forward and improve the lives of the people.

 

What is the present situation of the Church in Pakistan?

95% of the population are Muslims, and the remainder belong to various minorities, including Christians, Hindus, Sikhs and Parsees. Catholics number approximately 1.5 million, and Christians, including the many different Protestant denominations, total some 6 million people, or around 2% of the total. The Christians represent a particularly impoverished section of the community, many of them find only very precarious forms of employment, often in conditions of semi-slavery. The key for us is education, so that we can improve the lives of the people and demonstrate that Christians are also part of society, equal in dignity and able to engage in skilled work. Theoretically, under the law, our community is entitled to a representative quota of 5% in the public institutions, but sometimes we do not succeed in occupying all these positions of responsibility, owing to the lack of people with the necessary qualifications.

 

How would you define the life of faith of the Christians in Pakistan?

Our people have a very simple but very strong faith. Despite the problems of access to education and the lack of opportunities, the people are faithful to the Gospel, and our churches are full. 90% of Catholic Christians attend Mass every Sunday, and many also during the week. I should also add that many people simply cannot attend Mass every Sunday owing to the lack of churches and of priests to minister to them.

 

The key for us is education, so that we can improve the lives of the people and demonstrate that Christians are also part of society, equal in dignity and able to engage in skilled work.

“The key for us is education, so that we can improve the lives of the people and demonstrate that Christians are also part of society, equal in dignity and able to engage in skilled work.”

 

What can you tell us about the case of Asia Bibi?

We in the Catholic Church respect the laws of our country and we respect the justice system. The Supreme Court in Islamabad has already given its verdict. They are the highest legal authority in the land and we have to respect the decision of the Supreme Court.

 

Are Christians suffering the consequences of the extremism on the part of certain Islamist groups?

Yes, most certainly. We have suffered attacks on our churches, and Christians also feel threatened by the blasphemy laws. These laws are frequently used for personal vendettas, in order to falsely accuse other people. But in reality there need not be any problems if the local authorities would deal promptly with such cases. This is why interreligious dialogue is key to working together with the mullahs, the Islamic leaders, to check such campaigns of false accusations and help to calm down the more extremist elements. If we do not succeed in responding quickly enough where such accusations have been made, then people sometimes take the law into their own hands and end up murdering those who have been accused. I know a number of such cases, because I am also the head of the bishops’ Justice and Peace commission.

 

 

We are striving to find areas where we can work together – Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Parsees and other minority religions.

“We are striving to find areas where we can work together – Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Parsees and other minority religions.”

 

What is the relationship between the Catholic Church and the other religions in the country?

In the Pakistani context, interfaith dialogue is very important. The Catholic Church is leading the way in this respect. We are striving to find areas where we can work together – Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Parsees and other minority religions. Our experience is that when we share our lives, there is a better understanding between us. It is a slow process, and I believe that we need more work between individuals as well. Our aim is to bring about peace and counter extremism.

 

Do you have a final word for the benefactors of ACN?

I would like to express my gratitude to all the benefactors who are helping our community. The Catholic dioceses in Pakistan have to work very hard to raise the money to keep functioning. We have few resources of our own, so that with your help and solidarity we are able to support some of the poorest in society. We don’t get aid from any other individuals or from any other institutions in Pakistan.

TO LEARN MORE ABOUT Aid to the Church in Need, VISIT http://www.churchinneed.org
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ABOUT US

Founded in 1947 as a Catholic aid organization for war refugees and recognized as a papal foundation since 2011, ACN is dedicated to the service of Christians around the world, through information, prayer and action, wherever they are persecuted or oppressed or suffering material need. ACN supports every year an average of 5000 projects in close to 150 countries, thanks to private donations, as the foundation receives no public funding.