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Welby raises religious-freedom concerns with Prime Minister of Pakistan

01 March 2022

Church of Pakistan

The Archbishop of Canterbury visits All Saints’, Peshawar, on Sunday

The Archbishop of Canterbury visits All Saints’, Peshawar, on Sunday

THE Archbishop of Canterbury visited Pakistan last weekend “to show support for its Christian community”, Lambeth Palace confirmed on Tuesday.

The visit included a meeting with the Prime Minister, Imran Khan, and followed renewed reports of systemic discrimination against religious minorities in the country, and a warning that government failure to address hate speech and promote religious harmony had contributed to mob violence.

The three-day visit included time in Peshawar, where the Archbishop met survivors of recent terrorist attacks and relatives of those killed. In January, a 75-year-old Church of Pakistan presbyter, the Revd William Siraj, was shot dead while travelling home from a church service (News, 4 February).

For the congregation of All Saints’, Peshawar, where more than 80 people were killed in a 2013 terrorist bombing (News, 20 September 2013), the Archbishop’s message was: “You are not forgotten.” During the visit, he unveiled the foundation stone for a new Centre for Interfaith Harmony and Reconciliation at the church.

“It was profoundly moving to visit the Christian community of Peshawar,” the Archbishop said afterwards. “It’s a community I have longed to visit for many years. I have prayed for them, wept for them, and thanked God for them. Many of the community there continue to live with the trauma of the terrible attacks. . . And yet the All Saints’ community have refused to allow the darkness to overcome the light of Christ among them. They are an inspiration and a blessing to us all.”

Attacks since 2013 have included suicide bombings at two churches in Youhanabad, a Christian neighbourhood of Lahore, which left at least 16 people dead in 2015 (News, 20 March 2015). On Easter Day 2016, a suicide bombing in a park in Lahore killed more than 70 people (News, 1 April 2016).

Archbishop Welby’s visit was at the invitation of the Moderator of the Church of Pakistan, Dr Azad Marshall, who, shortly after his election last year, warned that the country was failing to fulfil the vision of its founding father by not protecting the rights of religious minorities (News, 20 August 2021).

The Archbishop’s itinerary included a meeting with national leaders “to raise the concerns of Christians and discuss protecting freedom of religion or belief for all people in Pakistan”, Lambeth Palace said.

On Sunday, the Archbishop addressed a reception for faith leaders co-hosted by Dr Marshall and the Prime Minister’s Special Representative for Interfaith Harmony, Tahir Mehmood Ashrafi, in Islamabad. Archbishop Welby told the gathering: “We need to be honest with each other and be courageous in speaking about difficult issues. We need to learn to argue and disagree well.”

At a meeting with Mr Khan on Monday, the Archbishop raised the issues of creating social cohesion and respecting freedom of religion or belief, particularly in the education system.

This is among the concerns raised by Dr Marshall. In 2019, the Bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen, suggested in a review of religious freedom for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, that the British Government’s support for mainstream education in Pakistan — £2.7 billion over the past two decades — “may in part be contributing to the radicalisation of school-age children” (News, 12 July 2019).

Among those at the meeting with Mr Khan was Shunila Ruth, a champion of women’s rights (News, 27 June 2014), who is a National Assembly representative of Mr Khan’s PTI party. She spoke on Twitter of a “very fruitful meeting”. The Archbishop also met the Chief of Army Staff.

Last year, the Costs of War study, based at Brown University in the United States, reported that 67,000 people had been killed in Pakistan in the past 20 years as a result of the “war on terror” after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

At the end of his visit, the Archbishop said: “Our world needs hope, resilience, courage, and a deep commitment to peace; and, for that reason, the Church of Pakistan is a gift not just to Pakistan, but to the world. I give thanks for the way they bear witness to the love of Jesus Christ in the most difficult circumstances.

“Christians in Pakistan, along with other communities, face many challenges and struggles — and we must stand alongside them in their call for justice, human rights, and freedom of religion or belief for all. Pakistan was founded on a hopeful vision in which every person is free to practise their faith, and we must pray and support everyone who continues to work towards the realisation of this vision.”

Dr Marshall described the visit as “great encouragement to Pakistan’s Christians. Our meetings both internally as a Uniting Church and externally with governments and government representatives have shown us that our voices have significance. It is my hope that the meetings we have had will bear fruit and strengthen the Church. while building our capacity to speak out against injustice and face the future with transformational hope in not ourselves or our plans, but in the plan that God has for all of Pakistan.”

Pakistan remains one of 14 “countries of particular concern” listed by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and was ranked eighth in this year’s Open Doors World Watch List of countries where Christians face the most extreme persecution. Christians, who make up less than two per cent of the population, “are considered second-class citizens and are discriminated against in every aspect of public and private life”, the charity reports.

The latest USCIRF report is highly critical of the Pakistani government, which has, it says, “systematically enforced blasphemy and anti-Ahmadiyya laws and failed to protect religious minorities from abuses by nonstate actors”. Its “failure to address hate speech and promote religious harmony” has “contributed to mob violence”, the USCIRF says.

It reports a “sharp rise in targeted killings, blasphemy cases, forced conversions, and hate speech” targeting religious minorities. Its warning concerning the abduction, forced conversion to Islam, and forced marriage of minority women and children was echoed last year by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Pakistani Minorities (News, 3 December 2021).

In 2020, there were reportedly 30 Christians in prison in Pakistan on charges of blasphemy, including seven on death row. In January, a life sentence imposed on Zafar Bhatti, first imprisoned in 2012, was changed to death by hanging (News, 14 January 2022). During his election campaign in 2018, Mr Khan pledged to defend blasphemy laws (News, 27 July 2018).

In an interview in the newspaper Dawn on Tuesday, Archbishop Welby is reported as saying: “There are very clear misuses, as is recognised, of the blasphemy law against minorities; however most of the misuses — well over 50 per cent — are Muslims misusing it against Muslims. . .

“If you are going to have blasphemy law, it is so important that it cannot be misused. One of the things that many religious leaders, including Muslims, are saying is there needs to be a balance between the blasphemy law and its misuse. If one person accuses someone of blasphemy falsely and with malicious intent, they should have a criminal penalty, in the same way as when there has been blasphemy, and the blasphemer should have criminal penalty.”

Acknowledging the existence of Islamophobia in the West, he said: “As in all communities there are religious leaders who are Islamophobic. They are not major religious leaders and not well known, but it exists. There is also racism and the two were often interlinked in a really bad way but there was genuine Islamophobia.

“One of the roles of the Church of England was to combat Islamophobia, which the Queen and I often speak about following her example, is that the church exists to protect minority faith. Our job is to speak up for the minority faith.”

His meeting with Mr Khan included a discussion about the importance of “ensuring that education is used creatively and constructively, which is clearly what he wishes for, and not used as a tool to impose particular views”

Archbishop Welby has visited Pakistan twice since taking office: in 2014 (News, 30 May 2014) and 2016 (News, 25 November 2016).

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