Fear silences Christians in Pakistan, archbishop says


TORONTO — Fear has silenced the voice of Pakistani Christians since the political murder of Shahbaz Bhatti last spring, said the retired archbishop of Lahore, Pakistan.

“People are very sad, very bitter. They said, ‘If that happens to him what happens to us?'” Archbishop Lawrence Saldanha said in mid-November.

Bhatti’s killers remain at large. The convicted murderer of Salman Taseer, the former governor of Punjab, was greeted in court with rose petals and garlands. In an atmosphere of impunity for anyone who kills a Christian, educated Pakistani Christians are getting out of the country. Those who remain are keeping their heads down and their mouths shut, said Archbishop Saldanha.

A supporter of the Sunni Ittehad Council is seen next to a poster of convicted killer Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri during a rally in late October in Karachi, Pakistan. A retired Catholic archbishop said that in an atmosphere of impunity for anyone who kill s a Christian, educated Pakistani Christians are getting out of the country. (CN /Reuters)

“In such a situation, minorities don’t have much place. There’s no tolerance for other religions,” he said. “Either you convert or you leave. This is the choice.”

Archbishop Saldanha moved to Toronto in early November, joining his extended family in the city’s east end, where he hopes to involve himself locally in parish ministry. He spoke to The Catholic Register, Canadian Catholic weekly, in mid-November.

He said that in the more than 50 years since his priestly ordination, he has seen his country slide from corrupt oligarchy to military rule to mob rule.

“Everything is a big mess there — economically, socially, religiously,” he said.

Bhatti was Pakistan’s minister responsible for minorities. He was killed March 2. Taseer was murdered by his own bodyguard Jan. 4. Both men spoke publicly against Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

Waves of suicide bombings, targeted killings and death threats against Christians have human rights campaigners and staff for the Pakistani bishops’ justice and peace commission keeping their statements low-key and their names out of the papers. Even educated Muslims in Pakistan’s big cities have turned against the country’s religious minorities, the archbishop said.

“The mentality is changing, especially among the middle class and lower-middle class,” said Archbishop Saldanha, who headed the justice and peace commission the past 10 years. “They are being Talibanized.”

For the last year, Lahore’s Sacred Heart Cathedral has been guarded by three sharpshooters in concrete guard posts erected on either side of the compound entrance and next to the parish hall. Concrete barriers have been placed at the entrance and around the bishop’s house to slow down drivers and minimize the possibility of a suicide bomber getting close to the church.

But despite the risks Christians face, “the churches are packed,” said Archbishop Saldanha.

“People are very adaptable, very resilient,” he said. “They accept and go with the flow. They remain happy and active. They come to the church and fill up the church. They feel they get some consolation from that.”

But if they can get out, Pakistani Christians are heading for Canada, Australia and England, he added. The exodus has left his former archdiocese with a shortage of qualified laypeople to run schools, hospitals and other institutions. In some cases, nuns have been able to step in, but in many cases schools lack principals and qualified teachers.

“We are left with the mass of very poor, uneducated people,” the archbishop said.

There are 1.4 million Catholics and another million Protestants among Pakistan’s population of 177 million. Officially an Islamic republic, Pakistan broke from India in 1947 to provide a homeland for Muslims in the Indian subcontinent. More than 60 years later the country faces enormous challenges, said Archbishop Saldanha.

While in theory democracy should create a better environment for minorities, majority rule in Pakistan right now would be a disaster for the Christians, he said.

“The majority are pro-Islamic and they will vote for strict Islam,” he said. “If you have democracy, Islam will surely win, especially in the North.”

Christians under a strict form of Shariah, Islamic law, would be practically erased from the public life of the nation, said Archbishop Saldanha.

Pakistan is “not really democracy. They have hardly any legislation at all. The president and the prime minister call all the shots, without any reference to parliament,” he said.