Asia Bibi’s lawyer Saif Ul-Malook spoke to a delegation of ACN in Lahore, Pakistan. “Even though my life might have been destroyed due to Asia Bibi’s case, I do not regret having defended her. I never regretted. I would do it again. I am open for new cases such as this one in the future. If any Christian accused of blasphemy asked me to be his or her lawyer, I would do it without any hesitation”.

Asia Bibi’s lawyer Saif Ul-Malook.

Asia Bibi’s lawyer Saif Ul-Malook.

After Asia Bibi’s acquittal on 31st October, Saif Ul-Malook had to flee the country. He came back to Pakistan a few weeks ago for the final hearing on her case. A Muslim prayer leader had filed a petition to seek review of the verdict. The judges of the Supreme Court of Pakistan upheld her acquittal. When the lawyer came back to Pakistan, he was once more insulted and threatened. “My peers accuse me of being a bad Muslim. They are convinced I should not have defended a Christian woman who was accused of blasphemy. Besides, I received death threats. Because of that some of my colleagues and friends do not ride on the same car as me. They fear I will end up being killed and they want to avoid the same fate.”

The lawyer recalled how much his client has suffered. After being imprisoned for eight years wrongfully accused on death row in a blasphemy case, she is still waiting to live freely with her family. “Asia Bibi has remarkable endurance. I do not know how she managed. She lived for eight years in an eight square meters room. She was only allowed to get out twice a day for half an hour. She had limited time for visitors once a month. Whenever I met her, I tried my best to comfort her and to motivate her. For me, it would be impossible to live in those conditions.”

Now that Asia Bibi’s case is over and she is free, Saif Ul-Malook said he is ready to help others in need of legal assistance. “I am willing to give my legal advice and to be at service of anyone who needs me regardless of their belief. If another Christian needs my help, I will be at her or his disposal”. At the end of the conversation with ACN delegation, the lawyer shares one of his wishes. “I would love to meet Pope Francis. Even though I am a Muslim, I admire him as the Spiritual leader of three-quarters of humankind, and I wish to pay my respect to him.”

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.

After five years of marriage, Gulzar Masih and his wife, a Catholic couple, adopted a baby girl from a local hospital with the help of a family friend. The girl was named Meerab. Living in Sargodha, Pakistan, Meerab, who is 19 today, talks of the difficult realities of her life and her goals for the future to the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need.

“My father was Gulzar Masih. My mother is Naasra Bibi. I have one brother, Shahryar Gulzar, who is eight. I belong to a Catholic family. My father worked for daily wages, building and painting; he earned 200 Pakistani rupees per day, which equals about $2. But some days he was unable to get work, so we missed the occasional meal. When it came to providing the necessities, my father always faced difficulties, but we were thankful to God for his blessings.

“One day, my father became very ill, and my mother took him to the hospital. The doctor diagnosed him with diabetes. We did not have the financial resources to arrange for proper treatment—as a result my father died.

Living in Sargodha, Pakistan, Meerab, who is 19 today.

Living in Sargodha, Pakistan, Meerab, who is 19 today.

“After my father’s passing, my mother, though experiencing great sorrow and pain, found work as a maid to meet our domestic and educational needs. Family income was low and expenditures were high, which eventually led to the discontinuation of my studies. But my mother encouraged me not to lose my faith in God, saying He would show us the way. All night, I would think about my father and our family’s needs. So I decided to help my mother, whose health was not strong. She is often sick and has high blood pressure.

“I told her that I would help her after school, that I would either join her at work or work on her behalf. One day, I went alone to work, and the owner of the home, about 40, asked me to make a cup of tea for him. When I went to serve him, he held my arm tightly and kissed me. I was so afraid to tell my mother; I thought that she would beat me. But when it happened again, I told my mother. I was no longer allowed to join her at work. I wondered if she faced the same harassment.

“I always prayed to God, hoping that He would help us and show us the way. Some people visited our home and offered their support. I continued my studies at St. Ann’s Primary School, which is run by the Catholic Church. My brother was also in school at the time, but due to our financial circumstances, he left school to work as a building painter.

“When I was in the eighth class, the St. Vincent DePaul Society, run by the diocese, began to help with costs. The initial monthly stipend was 500 rupees, and after two years, it increased to 1000. Later on, I was admitted to the local High School, which is operated by a Catholic organization and is one of the best schools in our city. I am thankful to our principal, who waived all fees so I could continue my education without disturbance.

"I continued my studies at St. Ann’s Primary School, which is run by the Catholic Church".

“I continued my studies at St. Ann’s Primary School, which is run by the Catholic Church”.

Because of the good people God sent to us, I am able to participate in a pre-medical program at a college. I face religious discrimination there, as the school is Muslim, but I know that God is with me. I live in a seriously impoverished area; so in the evenings, I provide 200 children with free tutoring. It is my deep desire to become a doctor and help the poor, so no one dies like my father did.

In 2017, Aid to the Church in Need provided more than $900,000 in aid to the Church in Pakistan, which included support for seminarians and living expenses for women religious, as well as for a range of pastoral programs.

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.

Catholics make up only a tiny minority of a little over 1% of the total population of Pakistan, which overall is over 96% Muslim. Generally speaking, Christians belong to the lowest levels of society and by most Pakistanis are not even viewed as full and equal citizens. They face abuse, discrimination and even persecution, not infrequently even including violent attacks.

Yet despite these difficulties, the Catholic Church in the country is very much alive and active, striving with all the means at its disposal to accompany and support the Catholic faithful and strengthen them in their faith.

 

Support for the marriage and family apostolate of the Catholic Church in Pakistan

Support for the marriage and family apostolate of the Catholic Church in Pakistan

 

One important element of this support is the help for married couples and families. For in Pakistan, just as elsewhere in the world, Christian marriage and the family rooted in Christian values face all kind of difficulties and challenges. And so the Church in Pakistan has devised a range of programmes to support and accompany young couples preparing for marriage and families with children. The National Committee for Family and Life is responsible for training individuals to work in the dioceses, preparing young couples for the sacrament of matrimony and family life. It also has a range of programmes which not only deal with the spiritual dimension of marriage but also help with practical problems of the kind that face most married couples and families. Questions such as: What does the sacrament of matrimony actually mean? What is the „Theology of the Body“ spoken of by Pope Saint John Paul II? How can a Christian family life be built upon the Sacraments? These are just some of the issues tackled by the programme. At the same time, issues such as natural family planning, conflict resolution, encouraging married couples to talk together and discuss their issues, education in responsible sexuality for young people, focusing on fidelity, love and mutual responsibility are also covered, along with many other topics.

Bishop Samson Shukardin, who is chairman of the National Committee for Family and Life has already run programmes of this kind for marriage and family life successfully in his own diocese of Hyderabad. And he rightly insists, „The welfare of families is decisive for the future of the world and the Church.“ We are helping with a contribution of 7,500 Euros.

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.