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On the Plight of Catholics in Pakistan

Interview With a Journalist-Activist

KARACHI, Pakistan, JULY 24, 2005 (Zenit) - Catholics are living a delicate situation in Pakistan, according to the editor of the diocesan newspaper The Christian Voice.

Robin Fernandez, founder of the Karachi-based human rights group Conscience, is the information secretary for the press watchdog group Journalists for Human Rights and Democracy. He is also a member of the editorial staff of Dawn, Pakistan's premier English-language newspaper.

In this Catholic Online interview, Fernandez comments on the situation of Catholics in Muslim-majority Pakistan.

Q: Pakistan seems to be a difficult place for Christians to live in. Is this correct, or is it only an impression from the outside?

Fernandez: Generally speaking, it is not as difficult to lead a Christian life in Pakistan as it is made out to be. There are various challenges but, ironically, instead of making people vulnerable, those challenges have made them resilient, even strong.

The threats faced by Pakistani Christians today stem mainly from small, yet powerful Muslim extremist groups. Members of these groups are motivated by a burning sense of justice and almost an obsessive desire to right the wrongs suffered by their co-religionists and avenge the deaths of Muslims in Iraq, Bosnia, Kashmir, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Their actions are neither popular nor sanctioned by the government, but their motivation is perhaps shared by many.

Most Pakistani Christians are mindful of the fact that they are supported by a majority of their Muslim compatriots.

For the most part, the two communities enjoy a deep sense of understanding and kinship. They share their joys and grief and live in harmony with each other in most neighborhoods of the country.

Most Pakistanis acknowledge the work of Christians and their institutions. They respect them as law-abiding citizens, industrious workers and value them as nation- and institution-builders.

A lot of what happens to Christians and their institutions in Pakistan today is linked to what the United States and its allies in the West do on a day-to day basis to Muslim states or Muslim populations across the globe.

If the United States bombs Afghanistan or invades Iraq, then extremists groups in the country believe they can get back at the United States and its allies by attacking a church or any other Christian institution.

So we end up bearing the brunt of any act of Western aggression in the world. Mind you, most Pakistanis do not accept this extremist-created link between Western aggression and local Christians and believe it is wrong to punish anybody but the U.S. government for its actions.

Catholics and other Christian denominations are free to worship. The government has provided churches and vulnerable institutions with armed police guards. Pakistani Christians and other religious minorities enjoy the respect and admiration of Muslims.

Pakistan had a much more tolerant society about 26 years ago, and, by and large, the religious minorities living here felt safe. But since the early '80s the country has seen the introduction and enactment of various laws that have eroded layer by layer the pluralistic fabric of society.

Those laws, passed under a so-called Islamization drive by the late military ruler Zia ul-Haq, were discriminatory against religious minorities. Suddenly members of other faiths found themselves being treated differently.

Just to give you a small example: A religion column was introduced in the national passport in the 1980s. Before that, religion was rarely a divisive issue.

Q: Recently, the police raided the bookstore of the Daughters of St. Paul in Saddar, confiscated material, interrogated an employee of the bookstore for 24 hours and intimidated the sisters. An article containing accusations by Muslim extremists, published in a national newspaper in Urdu, triggered the raid. Why did this take place? Why would a Christian bookshop be seen as dangerous or outrageous to Islam?

Fernandez: There is a lingering suspicion among extremists that Christians are proselytizing through these bookshops and seeking covert and overt means to spread their faith.

But, as any member of the Christian denominations running these bookshops will tell you, the books and other literature, religious objects, paintings, icons, videos and audiotapes are meant exclusively for members of their faith.

In the case of Catholics, there is no other resource except the Daughters of St. Paul bookshop in Saddar. This bookshop is of inestimable value to them. Catholics come here to buy the Holy Bible, rosaries, portraits, medals, calendars, audiotapes and compact discs, and an assortment of books on theology, art, languages, etc.

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