In Pakistan, ‘Christians are a community of the very poor, living in conditions of semi-slavery’

ARCHBISHOP JOSEPH Arshad of Islamabad-Rawalpindi, Pakistan is also the president of the country’s bishops’ conference. Besides poverty, Pakistan’s Christians are confronted with very aggressive, often violent and deadly expressions of Islam, as was evident in the recent uproar over Christian woman Asia Bibi’s acquittal of charges of blasphemy. The archbishop explains why the Church in Pakistan is so insistent on the need for interreligious dialogue, working for peace in a country torn by the scourges of extremism, corruption and terrorist violence.

View of Christian slum in Pakistan

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

Archbishop Arshad: 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 more than 200 million people. 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 this 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?

Muslims comprise 95 percent of the population, and the remainder belongs to various minorities, including Christians, Hindus, Sikhs and Parsees. Catholics number approximately 1.5 million; altogether, Christians, including the many different Protestant denominations, total some 6 million people, or around 2 percent of the total population. Christians represent a particularly impoverished part 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 five percent of the leadership posts of public institutions—but sometimes we do not succeed in occupying all these positions of responsibility, because there aren’t enough Christians 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. Some 90 percent of Catholic Christians attend Mass every Sunday, and many also go to Mass during the week. I should add that many people simply cannot attend Mass every Sunday because of the lack of churches and the shortage of priests.

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 [to acquit Asia Bibi]. It is 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 to settle personal vendettas, in order to falsely accuse 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 curb false accusations and help to calm down the more extremist elements. If we do not succeed in responding quickly enough when such accusations have been made, people sometimes take the law into their own hands and end up murdering those who have been accused. I am very familiar with a number of such cases, because I am also the head of the bishops’ Justice and Peace commission.

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 among individuals as well. Our aim is to bring about peace and counter extremism.

—Josué Villalón