Christians hold a torchlight rally in Karachi on 19 August to condemn attacks on churches in Pakistan Christians hold a torchlight rally in Karachi on 19 August to condemn attacks on churches in Pakistan  (AFP or licensors)

President of Pakistan's Bishops: Impunity foments anti-Christian violence

As Christians in Pakistan hold a day of prayer in the wake of mob violence against Christian places of worship in Jaranwala, Archbishop Joseph Arshad grants an interview to Vatican News and appeals for prayers for the community and for those who perpetrate violence to be brought to justice.

By Deborah Castellano Lubov

Several Christian churches were vandalized and scores of houses set on fire on Wednesday by a mob of Muslims who attacked a Christian community in eastern Pakistan, after accusing two of its members of desecrating the Quran. The attack took place in Jaranwala in the industrial district of Faisalabad.

More than 80 Christian homes and at least 20 churches in Pakistan were vandalised when a Muslim mob rampaged through the streets over alleged blasphemy on 16 August.

Rights groups maintain that Christians continue to face discrimination in the country, evidenced by several accusations waged against them without any evidence, using the blasphemy law to accuse minorities arbitrarily.

A recent report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which drew attention to deteriorating religious freedom in numerous countries globally, expressed concern for the continued enforcement of blasphemy provisions punishing individuals for allegedly offending, insulting, or denigrating religious doctrines, and efforts to enact stricter blasphemy legislation in several countries.

In a statement, the Commission's Chair, Nury Turkel, observed: “Blasphemy prosecutions demonstrate a blatant disregard for human rights, and are often used to target members of religious communities and others who hold different or dissenting views.” 

In the wake of the attacks, today, Sunday, 20 August, a Special Day of Prayer in Pakistan is being observed in all the nation's Catholic communities.

As Pakistani Christians unite in prayer, the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Pakistan entrusts to the Lord's hands the episodes of open violence against sacred buildings and the families of the baptized, perpetrated on 16 August in the town of Jaranwala, near Faisalabad, in Pakistani Punjab.

In an interview with Vatican News, Archbishop Joseph Arshad, the President of Bishops' Conference of Pakistan, shared his firsthand account of the suffering of people affected by the violence.

Archbishop Arshad appealed for peace among the people of Pakistan, and insisted that those who orchestrated attacks against Christians and Christian churches be brought to justice to prevent similar episodes from occurring again.

"Each time these incidents happen, there is no example of a punishment given to these people, and that's why these things, they are happening again," he said.

Q: Archbishop, why is this day of prayer for Pakistan so important?

Archbishop Arshad: We called for this day of prayer because we need to pray for Pakistan. We need to pray for what is happening in our society. We need to pray for the victims who have gone, and are in trouble, and in pain, and suffering, at the moment.

Q: How is the situation now? How are people recovering? What are you seeing?

The other day I visited where everything occurred. I went there. People are suffering. You can feel the pain of people who left. Their houses were looted. Twenty-one churches are burnt. Catholic parishes, and Protestant parishes also, are burned.

The Bibles are burnt. The Crosses are burnt. It's very painful to see.

“The Bibles are burnt. The Crosses are burnt. It's very painful to see.”

Naturally, for the people who have lost their houses, it will take time to come out of this trauma. At the moment, some people have went to their relatives to stay together with them.

Some people are in the open field, so the church has moved, and we are trying our best, to help and assist these people.

Q: What should be done? What do people need? Is there a need to reevaluate the blasphemy laws or is there more of a need to prevent people from taking the law into their hands and going to the streets?

We condemn the misuse [of the law]. We want that no one misuses this law. The problem in Pakistan is that the people take the law into their hands. And in this, what happened, is that the people, the mobs of people, took the law in their hands.

“We condemn the misuse. We want that nobody misuses this law. The problem in Pakistan is that the people take the law into their hands.”

Q: What can be done to prevent the misuse of the law?

Good education is needed. Among the people, more awareness is needed. Respect for each other's religion is to be promoted. These measures can help the society to become better. And naturally, the government should effectuate strict punishment to bring to justice those people who have done this.

Otherwise, as in each of the incidents in Pakistan in the past, the mobs of people have attacked, but no proper justice was done. That's why it happened again. If there was some example set in the past, this could have been avoided. Maybe with police or administration, some time could be taken to come and control the situation. So that should be it. Real justice is to be done in order to stop these kind of incidents in future.

Q: This news arrived throughout the world. Have there been any acts of solidarity from Muslims in other parts of the world?

Muslims are coming to us and paying their condolences. Even the Prime Minister has announced that they will take strict measures and they will bring these people to justice, and even the Chief Minister of Punjab also knows this. But at the time, everybody is intent on controlling the situation and to help these people.

Q: Pope Francis has instituted a new Commission dedicated to new martyrs. A person who comes to mind is of Bhatti. I would like to ask you how he has borne witness to Christianity being a Christian in Pakistan amid difficulties, and how the Christians today bear witness in your country?

We, the Christians, have been always a peaceful nation, a peaceful people, in Pakistan. Shahbaz Bhatti was a minister here, and a man who always spoke for the rights of people. And that's why people still remember him and they consider him a hero because he also insisted in the government, that the 5% quota for the minority was introduced, in all the departments of the government. We can benefit from this quota in Pakistan. That was all due to the struggles of Shahbaz Bhatti.

Q: In the day to day reality, though, for the Christians in Pakistan, is it fair to observe that there are many episodes of discrimination?

There are many. I mean, the culture, the mindset, is such that even all, the people are being discriminated. We as a as a religious minority, we are the biggest sector of the society. So we too, are discriminated. But the rich will discriminate; the poor, the powerful, they will discriminate against the weakest ones. And so, these realities, exist in the society. Therefore, we become an easy target in this kind of discrimination and mindset.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?

I would say that we need to pray for Christians in Pakistan. And naturally, justice should be done in this case, because each time, each time these incidents happen, there is no example of a punishment given to these people, and that's why these things, they are happening again.

But at this time, the prime minister, the army chief, the chief minister, they have declared that they will give strict punishment to them, and bring all to justice in Pakistan.

Listen to the full interview with the President of Pakistan's Bishops Conference:

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19 August 2023, 12:37