By Robin Gomes
When Pakistan’s Catholic bishops meet Pope Francis in the Vatican on Thursday, they are going to invite him to visit their country. Archbishop Joseph Coutts of Karchi, made the declaration to Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) on Wednesday.
Members of the Pakistan Catholic Bishops’ Conference (PCBC) are currently in Rome on what is called the “ad limina” visit. Heads of dioceses make such visits every 5 years or so to report on the state of their jurisdictions.
Thursday morning, the bishops will concelebrate Mass with the Pope in the Vatican’s Casa Santa Marta residence and later meet him to discuss the current situation in the country.
Invitation has government backing
Arch. Coutts said that their invitation to the Pope has the support of the Pakistani government. In 2015, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had sent two federal ministers to Rome to personally deliver the letter of invitation to the Pontiff.
Archbishop Coutts noted that, "Pope Francis is highly esteemed by all Pakistanis, including Muslims. They consider him a man of peace and appreciated his steps towards the Islamic community, not least the good relations with the Al-Azhar,” University of Cairo, Egypt, Arch. Coutts said.
He however said that the possibility of such a visit can be discussed only after the establishment of a new government following the general elections scheduled for 15 July. He was confident it will be possible.
Air of uncertainty in Pakistan
The archbishop expressed concern over the great uncertainty in the troubled south Asian country ahead of the elections. "The main parties as well as those with Islamic affiliations are fighting each other, and a mature and wise candidate has not yet emerged,” he noted. These tensions concern not only Christians but also the entire population, he said.
Pakistan's small Christian minority continues to suffer, mainly due to attacks on churches, the 72-year old archbishop said, noting that the last attack was on the Methodist church of Quetta on 17 December. Since several churches have been hit in recent years, he said, places of worship are given police protection on Sundays and feast days. However, he said, “There is constant danger and we do not know where and when the terrorists will strike again.”
The other source of great concern for Christians, Arch. Coutts pointed out, is the abuse of the country’s controversial blasphemy laws. He spoke about the recent incident of a Christian boy from Lahore, Patras Masih, who has been arrested for offending the Prophet Muhammad. "For the umpteenth time,” lamented Arch. Coutts, “a person, almost always innocent, is accused without any proof and without the possibility of defending himself.”
The blasphemy laws remain an extremely sensitive issue in the predominantly Muslim nation and they have drawn intense criticism even within the country. Insulting the Prophet Muhammad in Pakistan is a crime punishable by death, while offending the Koran, Islam’s holy book, incurs life imprisonment. Rights organizations say the law is often misused to settle personal scores.
Arch. Coutts pointed out that Islamist extremists exert much pressure to fomenting the feelings of people, that prevents the right course of justice, even for Muslims. According to him, a change in mentality is needed in order to prevent the abuse of the blasphemy laws. The problem of blasphemy laws, he said, is inherent in Pakistani society, that is not yet ready to properly handle the issue of religion.
However, Pakistan’s tiny Christian community draws strength from international solidarity. Arch. Coutts expressed gratitude to ACN for its efforts in this regard, especially for lighting up Rome’s famous landmark, the Colosseum in red on 24 February, in solidarity with the suffering Christians of the world.
Among those invited to the Rome event were the husband and youngest daughter of Asia Bibi of Pakistan, condemned to death in 2010 for blasphemy.
Such initiatives, Arch. Coutts said, show to the Western world that there are Christians in other parts of the world who suffer because of the lack of separation between religion and state. “When we know you are aware of our situation and pray for us, we feel encouraged and no longer feel alone,” he said thanking ACN for its efforts.
Aid to the Church in Need is a Pontifical Foundation that supports suffering Christians in over 140 countries around the world.