Church of Pakistan an inspiration, says Welby

by
06 June 2014

Michael Binyon travelled with the Archbishop of Canterbury to Lahore­

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Hands full: the Archbishop of Can­­ter­bury in the Cathedral of the Resurrection in Lahore, Pakistan

Hands full: the Archbishop of Can­­ter­bury in the Cathedral of the Resurrection in Lahore, Pakistan

PAKISTAN must rank with Nigeria and Sudan as one of the most difficult countries in which to live as a Christian. Not only is the community small - about 3.6 million Christians, out of a population of 180 million - but it faces almost daily assault and persecution.

Fanaticism, mob violence, death threats, bombings, and institutional discrimination are just some of the dangers. Christians are often denied places in schools, are forced to accept only menial jobs, and are viewed with contempt and hatred by Islamist militants.

Last September, two suicide-bombers attacked a church in Peshawar, killing and wounding more than 230 worshippers, at a time when women and children were thronging the church grounds (News, 27 September). In 2012, Rimsha Masih, a Christian girl with learning difficulties, was threatened with execution for blasphemy when a Muslim cleric planted false evidence to incriminate her for burning pages of the Qur'an (News, 24 August 2012).

The Archbishop of Canterbury was impressed, however, by what he found on his two-day visit last week. Not only was the United Church of Pakistan in good spirits and full voice, welcoming him at a service in the Cathedral of the Resurrection, in Lahore, with joyous celebrations; it was, he said, an inspiration to the wider Anglican Communion.

Here was a beleaguered community that refused to be deflected from what it saw as its moral and civic duties to the wider Muslim society. Here was a Church that continued to strive for better interfaith relations in a state set up explicitly to favour the majority religion.

Here, the faithful were prepared to keep going, whatever the setbacks. "It is about just sticking it out," Archbishop Welby said. And that, he believed, was a lesson that all Churches needed to learn, in-cluding those where divisions, public indifference, and falling attendance were taking their toll.

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The problems in Pakistan were illustrated on the first day of the Archbishop's visit. As he was listening to the pleas to be allowed to worship in freedom and safety by the Bishops of the eight dioceses, a few streets away, a pregnant young Muslim woman lay dying, her face and head smashed by bricks wielded by her family, as a punishment for defying her father's wishes.

There could be no more ghastly example of the fanaticism and misguided sense of honour which now have such a powerful grip on much of Pakistani society. "The case has utterly horrified me, and has horrified every Pakistani to whom I've spoken," the Archbishop said on learning of the details the next day. "It was in no sense a punishment, but a revolting lynching."

The stoning received only cursory mention on the front pages of the newspapers in Pakistan; it was not an uncommon incident. Almost 900 women were the victims of "honour" killings by their families last year, the country's human-rights groups say.

But the coincidence of the Archbishop's visit and the widespread coverage given to the case abroad prompted swift official reaction: the Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, ordered an inquiry. The police have been forced to account for their inaction. And there were promises that more would be done to protect women who are routinely exploited by their families, or subject to appalling violence.

 

So far, however, there has been little official action to correct another abuse that is taking a disproportionate toll on Christians in Pakistan: the misuse of the notorious blasphemy laws.

These laws, passed in the 1970s when a deliberate attempt to Islamise Pakistani society for political ends fuelled the growth of Islamist militancy, are increasingly used not to protect the honour of Islam, but for crude material gain. No further evidence beyond a verbal accusation needs to be produced in court to support charges that a person has insulted the Prophet Muhammad, or denigrated Islam. The penalty can be a death sentence, or a long term in prison.

Muslims are just as much victims of the greedy and unscrupulous, who make accusations of blasphemy to incite a mob, get revenge on business rivals, or force people from their land and property.

Yet any attempt at change runs up against the opposition of Islamists. In 2011, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian minister in the federal government, was assassinated after calling for a change in the law ( News, 4 March 2011).

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The Archbishop heard of the dangers at first-hand. At a meeting with Muslim leaders, and those from the small Sikh and Hindu communities, he heard from Hafiz Tahir Mahmood Ashrafi, who chairs the Pakistan Ulema Council. Mr Ashrafi had given evidence to a court that the evidence against Rimsha Masih was planted on her. He was promptly sent death threats. But he insisted that Muslims had a duty to protect their Christian fellow citizens.

Archbishop Welby and the Bishop of Raiwind, the Rt Revd Samuel Azariah, raised the issue during a courtesy call on Mohammad Sarwar, the former MP for Glasgow Central, who recently returned to Pakistan and was appointed Governor of Punjab, its richest and most populous state.

Mr Sarwar said that he would talk to the Prime Minister and to the state's Chief Minister. But he was cautious about promising change: the issue, he said, was so sensitive that extremists always threatened violence if the laws were amended.

Bishop Azariah is the Moderator of the United Church of Pakistan, which was formed from the small Churches whose roots in the country lay in the evangelism of British missionaries during the Raj.

In 1970, four Churches agreed to unite: the Anglicans, Methodists, Scottish Presbyterians, and Lutherans. It has been a difficult union. Each element is still jealous of its traditions and separate liturgies. Bishops have gone to court to sue each other over claims to property and funding. There are still tensions over church governance.

The Archbishop urged all the bishops, in private talks, to put aside their differences and concentrate on "holiness" and internal reconciliation. That was certainly on view during the high point of his visit: a morning service in Lahore Cathedral, an imposing neo-Gothic edifice built in 1887 during the height of British rule, with stained-glass windows and plaques commemorating army officers and servants of the Raj.

"Praise, my soul, the King of Heaven" rang out from the packed congregation, as Archbishop Welby, in cope and mitre, was led in procession to the altar. Garlanded with roses and jasmine - as were Mrs Welby and the small group from London accompanying them - he preached a sermon of hope and fortitude, saluting Christians in Pakistan for their steadfastness and their work in opening up their schools and rural health-clinics to the wider community.

The country's Christians are not wealthy. The Bishop of Peshawar, the Rt Revd Humphrey Peters, is still trying to raise money overseas to pay for operations abroad for the 25 worshippers who were injured during the bombing of a church.

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But the community has found money to run a small school for children with disabilities and learning difficulties within the church compound in Raiwind. It is open to anyone, whatever their faith. And it is one of the few to cater for those with disabilities.

This, Archbishop Welby said, was Christian faith in action. It was, he said, an example of the reconciliation that he has made a hallmark of his office. He said that he was uplifted by the vibrancy of the small community.

He admitted to a personal link to Lahore. In 1910, his great-grandfather had been the British Deputy Commissioner in the city, once one of the jewels of the Raj. His grandmother was brought up to speak fluent Urdu and Hindi.

As the Archbishop joined the congregation in the Urdu words to hymns familiar around the Anglican Communion, he may have felt a new connection to Christianity in the subcontinent, before departing for Bangladesh, and then the Churches of North and of South India. He has visited 17 of the Communion's 38 provinces. Pakistan must have one of the most challenging - and most rewarding.

Michael Binyon accompanied the Archbishop to Pakistan for The Times.

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