Cardinal Coutts: I work so that harmony may reign in Pakistan

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Cardinal Coutts: I work so that harmony may reign in Pakistan

By Cristina Uguccioni/ lastampa.it

The activities and challenges of the small Catholic community, the prospects opened up by the Abu Dhabi Declaration, the Church's commitment in favor of young people in the interview with the Archbishop of Karachi.

Joseph Coutts, born in 1945, has been Archbishop of Karachi since 2012. Member of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, he was president of the Pakistani Episcopal Conference from 2011 to 2017. On 28 June 2018 Pope Francis created him a cardinal. Having come to Italy to participate in some meetings promoted by the papal foundation Aid to the Church in Need, the archbishop tells Vatican Insider about the life of the Catholic Church in Pakistan, a country with almost 200 million inhabitants, 95% of whom are of the Islamic faith. There are about three million Christians (Catholics and Protestants).

How would you describe the Catholic community in Pakistan? And what are the main challenges it has to face?

"That Pakistani Church is small but lively, firm in faith, living under pressure but not losing hope and offering a clear witness in a difficult context. As Pope Francis recalled during his trip to Morocco, what counts is not the quantity but that salt tastes and that yeast has the strength to ferment the whole mass. Through churches, schools and charitable initiatives our Church carries out an important work, recognized also by many Muslims.

An open and enlightened man, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, founder of Pakistan (born as a state for Muslims but not as a theocratic state) often repeated that all citizens were equal and free to profess their faith: religious belonging should not concern the state. The Constitution sanctions the equality of all citizens but in daily life many Muslims cultivate prejudices against the faithful of other religions, considering them in some way inferior, second-class citizens: in a country in which 50% of the population is still illiterate, many people of the Islamic faith unfortunately believe so and Christians suffer various forms of discrimination (for example in the workplace). Pakistan, born to be a modern democratic state, has gradually changed: Islamic groups have begun to strengthen and exert pressure on the various governments to introduce Islamic laws and transform this land into an Islamic country. In 1986 the law on blasphemy was passed, the source of most of the problems that Christians face today: everyone knows the case of Asia Bibi, the Catholic woman unjustly sentenced to death for blasphemy, who thanks be to God was finally acquitted and is now free. Unfortunately, her case is not the only one: there are many others involving Christians but also Muslims themselves. These accusations are often unfounded: this law can easily be misused as a means of revenge. From 1987 to 2017, 1,534 people were accused. Another serious problem we have to face is that of the kidnappings and forced conversions to Islam of Christian and Hindu girls who are then forced to marry their kidnappers. There are no official figures, but it is believed that every year many girls are snatched from their families and forced to convert.

In recent years, many Pakistani imams have gone to study abroad, in Saudi Arabia, and Wahabism is spreading; there are also extremist groups, such as the Taliban, who have built ties with Isis and Al Qaeda, and would like to impose a rigid and closed Islam that Pakistan has never known. For these fanatics, democracy and the Declaration of Human Rights are Western issues that are unacceptable to the Islamic world. This constitutes a problem for the many moderate and enlightened Muslims who live in the country and with whom - I would like to point out - it is easy to live. Pakistan, despite the painful tribulations suffered by Christians and other religious minorities, remains a democracy. Muslims of good will, such as those who are part of the HRCP (Human Rights Commission of Pakistan) and other bodies, come forward to support us amid difficulties and we can go out into the streets to protest against the injustices and violence suffered. The acquittal of Asia Bibi and the way in which the government has been able to handle the numerous protests following the Supreme Court's decision are positive facts. The government also takes care of the safety of all places of worship of religious minorities. And, since I was appointed cardinal, has assigned me an escort to ensure my personal safety."

How does the presence of the Church in Pakistan articulate itself? What works have been started?

"Over the years the Church has been involved in the educational, health and social fields promoting charitable initiatives and opening schools and hospitals. We work for the good of the whole population also together with people of other faiths. We are a small flock, but we are contributing to the development of the country. This is possible thanks to the support of many people and some realities - including the foundation Aid to the Church in Need, the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples and Caritas Internationalis - that have been helping us for years. We are particularly committed to education: we run many schools that enjoy the esteem and appreciation of both Christians and many Muslims. The quality of our educational offering is high. The Pakistani school system provides for public and private institutions: the latter are guaranteed freedom: for example, it is possible to teach catechism to Christian students. Numerous Pakistani leaders have studied in our schools: I am thinking for example of Benazir Bhutto, who was the first woman to become prime minister, and the current Pakistani ambassador to Italy, who is very proud of her experience in a Christian institute.

Unfortunately many imams invite families not to send their children to Christian schools because, they say, we teach Western values contrary to Islam: for these people the West and Christianity are equivalent. In state schools, non-Muslim students often find themselves having to suffer discrimination. In textbooks non-Muslims are described in a negative way, a fact that has sparked our public protests. We don't let ourselves be discouraged and we go ahead with confidence, convinced that promoting human values in our schools is the best way to build a future of peace and good coexistence".

The Pakistani Church has proclaimed 2020 the Year of Youth: why this choice?

"Because the younger generations are the future of the Church and we must prepare them. I participated in the recent Synod of Young People and I was able to see what their needs are: first of all that of being accompanied. In Pakistan we must work even harder to accompany our young people. We have recently set up a committee to determine what initiatives to organize next year".

How do you judge the Document on the Human fraternity signed on 3 February last in Abu Dhabi by Pope Francis and Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, great imam of Al-Azhar? Has this text already had any repercussions in Pakistan?

"I was present in Abu Dhabi invited by the Muslim Council of Elders, the organization that promoted the international inter-religious meeting. I appreciated the courageous openness shown by the great imam of Al-Azhar and by the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who set a good example to the other leaders of the region. The meeting, as we know, was about human fraternity: courageously we wanted to reflect on this theme and not simply on dialogue or tolerance: human fraternity implies the recognition of the equality of all human beings. I consider the Declaration to be a very important document. The Pakistani press gave great prominence to the Abu Dhabi conference but, to my knowledge, there have not yet been specific positions on the Declaration taken by the various Muslim groups present in the country. I certainly know that a considerable number of Muslim citizens have great respect for Pope Francis, as they did for John Paul II. Often my friends of the Islamic faith ask me to invite the Pope to Pakistan".

What is your opinion of the Declaration of Islamabad, signed this year by over 500 Pakistani imams, which, among other things, recognizes the multi-ethnic and multi-religious character of Pakistan and condemns the murders committed "under the pretext of religion"?

"It is a very significant text. The problem is that in the Islamic world there is no central religious authority: this Declaration expresses the clear position of a substantial number of imams, but it cannot be considered the official position of the whole Islamic world".

Do you think that the Declaration of Islamabad and the Declaration on the Human Fraternity are encouraging signs for an ever better coexistence between Christians and Muslims?

"I consider these documents an extremely important step forward in the path towards Fraternity, mutual understanding, peaceful coexistence. I hope and pray that others of equal importance will follow: this will also support the many good Muslims who condemn the murders committed in the name of God and for whom Islam is the religion of peace".

In these years at the head of the diocese of Karachi what has given you the greatest joy?

"The support, friendship and sincere affection of people, both Christian and Muslim. I was able to experience this affection even when I was created cardinal: for over a month I received dozens of people who wanted to rejoice with me and show their esteem. Among them there were also various local and national authorities of the Islamic faith who, visibly happy, were very proud that I, Pakistani archbishop, had received this title from the Pope".

What passage from the Gospel is most dear to you? And for what reason?

"I am particularly fond of the passage from the Gospel of John in which Jesus states: "I have come that they may have life and have it in abundance" (Jn 10:10). These words, which are a message to all, explain the incarnation: Jesus came to give life to human beings; a full life that includes salvation and eternal life".

Why did you choose the word "harmony" as your episcopal motto?

"Because I am convinced that it is possible for human beings to live together in harmony by accepting one another: just as musical notes, different from one another, can unite and create magnificent compositions, so human beings, different from one another, can build communities rich in harmony. I’m working as to make my chosen motto a reality in Pakistan".

Sun, 04/07/2019 - 13:26
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