By Robin Gomes
Muslim politicians and activists in Pakistan have joined Christians in welcoming the news about Pope Francis nominating Archbishop Joseph Coutts of Karachi among 14 new cardinals he will elevate on June 29.
Speaking during his weekly midday “Regina Coeli” prayer on Sunday, the Pontiff stressed that the origins of the new cardinals "express the universality of the Church, which continues to proclaim God's merciful love to all the men and women of the earth".
Pakistan received its first cardinal 45 years ago, when Pope Paul VI made Archbishop Joseph Cordeiro also of Karachi a cardinal in 1973. Some 24 years after his death in 1994, the predominantly Muslim nation will now have its second cardinal.
Archbishop Coutts surprised
"I am very surprised at my elevation as cardinal," Archbishop Coutts told UCANEWS. "I am only hearing it from media and friends. I am yet to be officially notified by the Vatican. However, if the news is correct, I will be traveling to the Vatican in June to receive the red hat,” said the 72-year old archbishop, who is very much engaged in initiatives of interfaith harmony.
Archbishop Coutts recently formed the first-ever diocesan commission to promote interfaith harmony and said he often attends programmes, seminars and conferences to encourage people from different religions to live together peacefully.
"Christians who live here should promote a culture of harmony," he said.
The minority Christian community of Pakistan expressed its gratitude at the news of the nomination of Archbishop Coutts as cardinal.
"We are truly thrilled. It was long overdue. The Church of Pakistan was depressed because of many years of persecution,” Father Bonnie Mendes, former executive secretary of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Pakistan Catholic Bishops’ Conference (PCBC), told AsiaNews.
Fr. Mendes regarded Archbishop Coutts as “the right man” who has been “a leader for 30 years.” He said, “He expresses himself in sensitive and considered ways, both in national and international meetings.”
Emmanuel Neno, executive secretary of the PCBC Commission for Catechesis, reflecting the elation of Pakistan’s Christians. "We are a religious minority, but our voice can be heard well in the universal Church,” “We thank the Holy Father because he takes care of the small Churches,” he said, noting that Archbishop Coutts has served as bishop in half the dioceses of the country, and knows well his people and their concerns.
"This is like a breath of fresh air for us. We have beautiful feelings. The naming of a cardinal from an Islamic country is a matter of great pride,” Father Inayat Bernard of the Sacred Heart Cathedral of Lahore told UCANEWS.
“On behalf of the Holy Father, I congratulate all of you," said the senior priest while addressing an interfaith gathering at Dominican Peace Center in Lahore.
Another priest, Father Pascal Paulus, president of the Major Religious Superiors Leadership Conference of Pakistan said, "All the Christians in Pakistan are grateful and praying for the Holy Father. He truly loves us.” “We are proud of Joseph Coutts as our leader. The humble pastor is a symbol of Christ in Pakistan. He is a visionary person with knowledge and a good understanding of political matters," the priest told UCANEWS.
Fr. Paulus noted that with a new cardinal issues of human rights in Pakistan will carry more weight and they will have a stronger voice. “The great pastor will boost our morale and will be the reason for progress of the local church," Fr. Paulus added.
Prominent Muslim personalities have also welcomed the news of Pakistan’s second cardinal.
In a post on Twitter, Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Railways Khawaja Saad Rafique wrote: "The nomination of Archbishop Joseph Coutts is very pleasing to the Christian community of Pakistan. He is a pride both for Christians and for our beloved Pakistan. Congratulations to the Christian community.”
Sohail Ahmad Raza, the Muslim director of interfaith relations at Minhaj-ul-Quran International, expressed satisfaction at the choice of Archbishop Coutts saying, “Now we know that the pope has focused on Pakistan. This is an honor not only for Christians but also for Pakistan."
Dr. Sadia Umer, coordinator of the women's empowerment initiative at United Religions Initiative (URI) Pakistan, a global grassroots interfaith network working for peace and justice, said that the news of Archbishop Coutts represents “a beautiful image” of the country. The Muslim gynecologist noted that everyone looks at Pakistan with suspicion and accuses its people of being terrorists. “Instead Pope Francis is different. He is truly sincere in inter-religious dialogue and regards us all as human beings,” she said, adding, “For us, the new cardinal is a gift of Ramadan."
Archbishop Joseph Coutts was born on July 21, 1945 at Amritsar, India. He was ordained to the priesthood on Jan. 9, 1971 in Lahore.
On May 5, 1988, St. John Paul appointed him Coadjutor Bishop of Hyderabad, and was consecrated bishop on September 16, that year. He succeeded as Bishop of Hyderabad on September 1, 1990.
After the see of Faisalabad fell vacant with bishop John Joseph taking his own life as a protest against anti-Christian bias in Pakistan, St. John Paul II appointed Bishop Coutts to Faisalabad on 27 Jun 1998.
On Jan. 25, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Bishop Coutts the Archbishop of Karachi, after Archbishop Evarist Pinto retired. He was installed on March 17.
Archbishop Coutts is the National Director of Caritas Pakistan and is actively involved in inter-faith dialogue with Muslims. He is also the president of Pakistan Catholic Bishops Conference. A doctor of philosophy, he can speak several languages including English, Italian, German, French, Urdu, Punjabi and Sindhi. (Source: AsiaNews/UCANEWS)