Harmony bearer Joseph Coutts, new cardinal in Pakistan

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Harmony bearer Joseph Coutts, new cardinal in Pakistan

By Paolo Affatato/ lastampa.it

The 72-year-old “white-bearded archbishop” is a tireless promoter of inter-religious dialogue, attentive to both the issue of human rights and the abuse of the blasphemy law.

When he was born in Amristar, a sacred city for Sikhs, Pakistan did not yet exist. And today his hometown is on the other side of the border, in India which is not too welcoming. The new Cardinal Joseph Coutts, “the white-bearded archbishop”, as the Pakistani faithful affectionately call him, is a person who radiates wisdom and equilibrium. Qualities that have ripened also due to his senectus which makes him the oldest among Pakistani bishops (72 years old) and therefore a leader who lived through the different and tormented phases of the Pakistani history: the wars with India, the dispute with Afghanistan, the alternation between democratic governments and military dictatorships, up until General Pervez Musharraf’s most recent one. Coutts saw with his own eyes both the growth of the Catholic community in Pakistan (today 1.6 per cent of over 200 million inhabitants), and the progressive Islamization of the country, legally institutionalized with Zia-ul-Haq’s military regime.

When the general died (in 1988) and the nation returned to having a democratically elected government, Coutts became bishop of the diocese of Hyderabad, in the province of Sindh, in southern Pakistan. At that very moment, the 43-year-old priest and seminary teacher had a turning point: he decided to choose the motto “Harmony” for his episcopal ministry, a word that would distinguish his pastoral and apostolic work for all the years to come. It is that spirit, he will tell, he learned from the evangelical witness of James Cornelius van Miltenburg, the Dutch missionary first bishop of Karachi, who celebrated his parents’ marriage and who spiritually raised him as a young priest.

The “harmony” approach it the ultimate “good” goal of Christians who live in the “land of the pure”. A country that has seen so many upheavals in its 70 years of history, but that today is “fundamentally” an Islamic republic, we shall not forget,” the new cardinal notes. “In this land, in our day, as baptized Pakistanis, we are called to find our own space, our own mission, which today is expressed above all in two ways: in building peace and harmony in society, according to the evangelical spirit of sowing concord. And in contributing to the growth and development of the nation, through social works, schools and hospitals, which are a concrete expression of Christ’s mercy”, Coutts explained in a conversation with Vatican Insider a few days before being nominated cardinal.

The archbishop has been “practicing harmony” for some time in his diocese in Karachi, a port and metropolitan city marked by a composite population, which includes people of different ethnic groups, nationalities, religions as well as strong communities of Afghan immigrants. Here, “Catholics are on the rise especially in the suburbs,” he notes, and therefore the local Church is committed to building new churches and schools, always with the intention of making a contribution to the harmonious development of the nation.

“The nomination of Joseph Coutts as cardinal is a great gift for the Christians of Pakistan. We consider it an authentic Pentecost gift,” Dominican James Channan, director of the Inter-religious Centre for Peace in Lahore, a pupil of Coutts at the Christ the King Seminary in Karachi, says to Vatican Insider. “There is great rejoicing throughout Pakistan: websites, social media, the TV have massively relaunched this good news. And the good wishes of many Muslim leaders have arrived”.

Coutts is appreciated because “he is a tireless promoter of inter-religious dialogue in general and of dialogue between Christians and Muslims”, Channan recalls. “He has organized and participated in countless meetings, seminars and conferences on inter-religious and Christian-Muslim dialogue”, for some years now, he has also been following the Episcopal Commission, and working on two levels: the “basic” one, that is, of raising awareness among ordinary people, and the one relative to religious and political leaders.

Indeed - the Dominican recalls - “Coutts is well aware of the crucial point regarding human rights in Pakistan”, and has been “a strong voice against the misuse of the controversial law on blasphemy ”, often used to target religious minorities or to settle personal disputes. “He raised his voice in defense of the Christian communities unjustly affected, as happened in 2009 in the massacre of Gojra, a city in Punjab where 150 houses of Christians were burned down and seven Christians were burned alive, in an attack carried out by Muslim extremists. At that time, the bishop had no hesitation in showing his closeness to the suffering of the faithful and in expressing “deep concern for the growth of intolerance and extremism in Pakistan”.

His task, now, will be “to do even more for inter-religious dialogue and, in particular, for Islamic-Christian relations: he will have to build bridges of trust, respect and tolerance among people of all religions. To break the walls of discrimination, hatred and violence still erected in the name of caste, creed, gender,” Channan hopes. “Coutts”, he concludes, “is a very humble and simple person, but also a wise and courageous one. He will be an authoritative voice for the future of Christians in Pakistan”.

Wed, 05/23/2018 - 12:18
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