Opinion & Analysis
A new year, a new Pakistan6:34 PM, February 6, 2018
Pakistan:July election marks a new era, and church leaders must step up to defend our rights.
(Photo credit: comboniane.org)
For Pakistanis, the year started with a bang as U.S. President Donald Trump accused our governement of lying to Washington and giving safe haven to terrorists from Afghanistan. A few days after Trump's first tweet of the year, Washington announced it was suspending military aid designed to assist with Pakistan's security.
The final blow to the long-strained U.S.-Pakistan ties comes as the country gears up for general elections in July. As always, the election year comes with its usual fervor. Major roads in provincial capitals get reconstructed. Political parties show their muscle by organizing huge rallies, blocking alternate routes. Others head to whatever venue they can find to get the precious vote banks.
One such gathering sparked a strong backlash from the Catholic community when Archbishop Sebastian Shaw blessed Maryam Nawaz, daughter of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, at the Sacred Heart Cathedral of Lahore. Maryam was campaigning for her mother Kulsoom Nawaz, of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), for the Lahore by-election last September.
That same evening, a hate campaign was launched against the archbishop, with over 6,000 posts shared on social media over the weekend. This is the first time a religious minority in the region has displayed such a strong reaction to a candidate. Sharif claimed the seat while Archbishop Shaw had to issue an apology and ban political acts and speeches in church buildings throughout the archdiocese.
"The church suffered a loss with this election stunt and missed out on the gains it could have offered," a Catholic human rights activist told me.
However this mode of election for minorities ranks as one of the most confusing issues encircling Christian leaders, both political and religious. After the restoration of a joint electorate system by former president Pervez Musharraf in 2000, minority candidates are now appointed by political parties to reserved seats.
Most community leaders reject this indirect system, blaming the sorry state of affairs for religious minorities on their "silent" lawmakers. I beg to differ.
Slain Catholic minister Shahbaz Bhatti, who was selected in much the same way, secured a 5 percent job quota for minorities in government departments, meeting a longstanding demand of non-Muslim Pakistanis. National Assembly member Asiya Nasir, a Christian, has repeatedly questioned the constitutional provision that puts a bar on minorities from holding the office of prime minister or president.
If anyone is to blame, I would single out church-run schools among the major culprits. Our missionary institutions take pride in displaying photos of the nation's top leadership, including Nawaz Sharif, as their alumni. Do they have a list of iconic Christian personalities groomed in the same schools, which charge sky-high fees beyond the reach of most lay people? Is it fair to reject a student simply because their parents can't speak English?
But enough with all the complaints. It's time to congratulate the Islamabad-Rawalpindi Diocese, which has finalized plans for the Feb. 10 installation ceremony of Archbishop Joseph Arshad. I had predicted the fate of the vacant see at the start of last year.
And here comes another prediction: The Faisalabad Diocese, vacant after the departure of Bishop Arshad, must gear up to welcome a bishop from the Dominicans. Among all three names that were recommended at the Pakistan Bishop's conference, I would vouch for Father Pascal Paulus, the order's vice provincial in the country.
On a similar note, Bishop Victor Gnanapragasam will soon retire as the bishop of Quetta Apostolic Prefectures, another restive region. I would like to issue my sincerest thanks to the elderly bishop for leading his flock through some difficult circumstances despite his status as a foreigner (he hails from Sri Lanka). Caritas Pakistan, the biggest Catholic charity in the Islamic Republic, will also see a major shift as its executive director Amjad Gulzar will complete his extended term of seven years in the coming months.
For years now the organization has been serving the poor and helping disaster victims without any discrimination, as per its mandate. That's where the Catholic Church can become the real face of Jesus for a disgruntled community. As the state continues to follow its discriminatory policy against minorities, they need someone who can provide them opportunities for a better life. They need improved education for their children, skill-development centers for youths and empowerment programs for women.
Church leaders in the Islamic Republic are activists by default. They are at the vanguard of defending our rights. Those who consider prayer and ministering sacraments as their sole responsibilities are doing the rest of us a disservice.
The 2018 elections will usher Pakistan into a new era. The new government will face a colossal challenge in trying to stabilize the economy, pull the country out of international isolation, fight terrorism and ensure religious freedom. Unless these key issues are addressed, this year will become another lamentable chapter in our history.
Kamran Chaudhry is a Catholic commentator based in Lahore.
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