The archbishop of Pakistan’s largest Catholic diocese was embarking on a nationwide tour of England to draw attention to the persecution of Christians, just as news broke of yet another delay in the blasphemy appeal case of Asia Bibi which was due to be heard on Thursday 13th October.
Archbishop Sebastian Francis Shaw OFM, of the Archdiocese of Lahore, had been giving a series of keynote lectures around England throughout the third week of October, at the invitation of the anti-persecution charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), when news about Asia, the imprisoned Catholic mother of five, hit headlines around the world.
The continued tension over the “sad case” of Asia Bibi
Archbishop Shaw spoke with the Catholic World Report on Saturday 15th October at Westminster Cathedral, London, where he was speaking at an ACN conference on Christian persecution in Pakistan and the Middle East.
“We’re all praying and hoping that she will get justice and be released. The case against her is very weak and fragile,” he said. “The supreme court in Pakistan is very free from pressures, and the chief justice is liberal and for human rights.”
Asia Bibi, a 50-year-old mother of five and farm labourer, was arrested in June 2009, after a group of women she was arguing with over drinking from the same well, accused her of blasphemy against Muhammad, whom Muslims believe is a prophet. She was arrested under Section 295c of the Pakistan Penal Code, and imprisoned.
In November 2010 Asia was sentenced to death, leading Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI to speak-out publicly for her release. In 2014 her appeal at the Lahore High court failed.
Her appeal was to be heard at the Supreme Court, until one of the judges cited a conflict, as he was on the bench for the case of Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab murdered in January 2011 for campaigning on behalf of Asia Bibi and criticising Pakistan’s blasphemy law.
Shabbaz Batti, the Pakistani federal minister for minority affairs, was also assassinated in March that year, for his criticism of the blasphemy law. In March 2016 the Diocese of Islamabad-Rawalpindi opened the cause for his canonisation.
CWR also received comment from MR Wilson Chowdhry, Chairman of the British Pakistani Christian Association. Mr Chowdhry was touring Australia on behalf of Pakistani Christians when news of Asia’s case broke.
“I’m aware of the reason cited by the appeal judge, but is that the real reason? Or is this just an excuse under pressure? The higher courts are supposed to ensure a level of justice and fairness, however late, but not anymore, it seems.
“Our sources in Pakistan say that extremists are threatening the government, saying that if Asia Bibi is freed and allowed to flee to the West with her family, they will unleash terror and kill many people. “
He said that it now seemed easier to give into the demands of militants rather than risk death and threats to one’s family. “This isn’t justice; it’s mob rule of the worst kind.”
Mr Chowdhry, the son of Pakistani immigrations to the UK, told CWR he receives “constant death threats.” His wife lost thirteen members of her family in the 2013 twin bomb attack in Peshawer, while another relative of his, Qaisor Pervais, received 85 percent burns defending a church from terrorists in March 2015.
John Pontifex, UK Head of Press and Information for ACN, told CWR: “Pakistan is blighted by the constant intentional misuse of the country’s blasphemy laws. The desperately sad case of Asia Bibi falsely accused of blasphemy is testimony to this.
“Over the last three decades, the laws have been used as a whip to beat the vulnerable in society; not just Christians but so many others including large numbers of Muslims.”
Mr Pontifex, who is also editor-in-chief of the charity’s 2016 Religious Freedom Report being launched next month in Parliament, told CWR that “innocent lives have been lost, by thugs and liars who make up false blasphemy accusations and, without recourse to the law, murder people, force others into hiding and steal people’s homes and livelihood.
“In their current form, the blasphemy laws are a dark shadow that hangs over the wonderful people of Pakistan, leaving them in fear of their lives. In the trips I have made to the country over the past decade I have wept with people forced into hiding by made-up blasphemy accusations.”
Church of suffering
Asia is by no means the only case of Christian persecution in Pakistan. During his lecture in Westminster, Archbishop Shaw told the audience about Qaisor Pervais, the 20-year-old volunteer guard at St John’s Catholic Church in Lahore.
“He was a member of our Bible and Catechism groups,” recalled Archbishop Shaw. “One day, he noticed a man approaching the church, and it was clear he wasn’t a Christian. Pervais challenged him, and pulled him to the ground. The suicide bomber detonated himself, killing 17 people, but thanks to the actions of this brave young man, 1500 inside the church were spared.
“We are proud of our young people, they know Christ and live for Christ, and they’re other-centred.”
The archbishop also shared the story of the mother of four, Shama Bibi, 24, who was pregnant with her fifth child, and her husband Sajjad Maseeh, 27, who were falsely accused of blasphemy and burned alive in a kiln. Their legs were broken so they could not flee the mobs who murdered them in 2014.
The archbishop said that no direct threats had been made against him, but that he was often warned to be on guard especially when other high-profile political and civic leaders have threats made against them.
CWR asked Archbishop Shaw if he thought Christians were being discriminated against, or actually persecuted. “It is persecution and discrimination,” he replied. “Forced conversion is anti-human rights. So if a lady is kidnapped and forced to become Muslim, we say again and again that the kidnappers should be punished, but they’re usually not, as they just produce a marriage certificate. It’s not good.”
The Pakistani Senate has just passed a new law against those convicted of honor killing. 500-1,000 cases are reported every year, but activists say the actual number is much higher.
The new law prevents perpetrators from using a loop-hole that allowed them to go free if family members forgave them. The crime now carries a mandatory life sentence, with family pardon only allowing a death sentence to be downgrading to life imprisonment. Around 80 percent of honor killings are carried out by family members of the victim.
The archbishop explained that there was only one Christian in the Senate, so the Church did not have an opportunity to influence legislation, but was “very in favour of human rights. Honor killings are inhumane.”
Church of Evangelisation
Despite the continued Islamist terror attacks, attempts at forced conversion, and murders based on spurious blasphemy charges, the Christianity continues to grow.
Mr Chowdhry said that the government had for years put the number of Christians at around 1.6 million, but the actual figure was higher. “The latest figures suggest it’s more like 3-4 million, but our own research suggests it’s more like 8-10 million.”
Archbishop Shaw described the Church in Pakistan as young and growing, with about 65 percent of the members under 30 years old. “In Lahore we are very thankful as we still we have many vocations. On 26 August I ordained five priests, and next year I will ordain seven or eight more, and we’ve got fifty seminarians just for Lahore,” he said.
“Our large youth population is a serious responsibility when it comes to education. The bishops, clergy, and parents have to be responsible for providing good catechism, otherwise the young people can fall prey to anyone.
“God has given children, so we must take responsibility for educating them, this is one of the reasons the Taliban attack us, because we provide education for men and women together, Malala is an example.”
He thanked ACN for their support in getting the Catechism of the Catholic Church translated in Urdu, which is the main language of Pakistan. It received approval from the Pontifical Council for New Evangelisation last year.
ACN has also been running several projects in Pakistan, including the distribution of children’s rosary booklets and Bibles in Urdu, youth catechesis materials, support for religious sisters and seminarians, and resources to improve security around churches.
“A student exchange programme would be welcomed, as Pakistani students could come to the UK to receive specialist training and technical knowledge, and bring it back to Pakistan so our schools are stay strong, and stay Christian,” he said. He also said that scholarships would be helpful, so that a lack of money would not become an obstacle.
Can Christians live in peace in Muslim-dominated Pakistan?
Archbishop Shaw says that as a minority in an Islamic country, witnessing to one’s faith posed serious challenges. A few weeks before being made archbishop of Lahore on 14 November 2013, Pope Francis appointed him as a member of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.
“In Pakistan, when Christians missionaries want to come they have to fill out a form stating they will not try to covert Muslims, and will not be involved in Political activities, so it’s made very clear that we do not convert people.
“I meet with Muslim scholars and Imams, as well as Hindu leaders, and we dialogue. I want them to know what we believe, know who Christ is and understand his life, his parables of mercy, and understand what we believe about God. And I tell them about this Year of Mercy, and call for us to be merciful – we want a peaceful society.”
However, Mr Chowdhry was less optimistic about current relations between Muslims and Christians, describing it as a ‘mafia’ scenario.
“The current situation reminds me of several reconciliation meetings. A church has a service but the local imam thinks is too close to Mosque prayer times. If the church won’t move the service, they cause community unrest, and get the police in, who call for a community reconciliation meeting.
“There the imam and his people make it quite clear that if they don’t get what they want, more serious violence and trouble will come. The police want to keep the peace, so everyone pressures the pastor of the church to give in.
“That’s what’s happening on a larger scale: a gun is being held to the head of the government, it’s mafia tactics.”
Who can they turn to?
Unlike the plight of Christians in Syria and Iraq, Archbishop Shaw doesn’t think Christianity in Pakistan will be wiped out. “No, no, that won’t happen. We have been here a long time, even before the creation of the state of Pakistan, it can never happen, plus our inter-religious dialogue is working very well, it will not happen.
“But we Christians in Pakistan feel very isolated. To the north we have Afghanistan, to the West we have Iran, to the south we have the Arabian Sea, and to the east we have India. We don’t have close relationships; we can’t turn to anyone around us.
During his tour of Australia, Mr Chowdhry said he was able to meet Eric Abetz, Liberal senator for Tasmania, who spoke in Australians’ Parliament on Thursday 13th October.
Senator Abetz reminded Parliament that “We as a nation give well over $40 million—I am not sure if it is $47 million or $49 million—worth of foreign aid to Pakistan,” continuing, “I believe we ought to be saying to the Pakistani government: ‘If you want to be the beneficiary of this sort of aid then you do need to protect the minorities within your country.’”
He also revealed that he had invited Hon. Peter Dutton, Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, to help Pakistanis, including those living in Thailand, by providing asylum cards and rehousing in Australia.
“Few Pakistani Christians are able to flee, but those who do escape often have difficulties finding refugee in the West. I’ve come to Australia hoping to find a way to help them,” explained Mr Chowdhry. “It’s going to take much more than new laws, but rather a miracle, a sea change in society big enough to counter the kind of mafia that dominates.”
Archbishop Shaw concluded his comments to CWR with a word of trust in God and divine providence. “We don’t need pity. When a Christian is born in Pakistan, I say that God has a special purpose for them, a special mission, to create peace, harmony, forgiveness, and mercy in society.”