11/15/2008, 00.00
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After interreligious summit at UN, Pakistani Christians say it's time for action

by Qaiser Felix
After the conference organized by Saudi king Abdullah, the Christians of Pakistan are waiting for words to turn into action. The secretary of the justice and peace commission of the Catholic Church and the director of the ecumenical organization the Christian Study Centre are optimistic for the future. Great expectations of Zardari government and the package of constitutional reforms announced by the Pakistan Peoples Party.

Islamabad (AsiaNews) - After the solemn affirmations of the interreligious summit held at the UN on November 13-14, Pakistani Christians are waiting for words to turn into action. Judgment on the initiative organized by Saudi king Abdullah and supported by the secretary general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-Moon, is positive. The appeal to mutual respect among all religions and to the avoidance of exploiting faith is widely shared.

The fact that the world political leaders present at the United Nations also included Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari is seen as a positive sign. The almost 3 million Christians in Pakistan, about 2% of a population with an overwhelming Muslim majority, expect signs of openness from the country's government, and hope that they can soon greet significant reforms in matters of respect and attention for minorities.

Interviewed by AsiaNews, Peter Jacob, secretary for the national commission of justice and peace of the Catholic Church (NJCP), affirms: "we are encouraged by the UN initiative on interfaith dialogue and the culture of peace, and now hatred against other religions should be discouraged at every level and stopped. After this UN conference, ‘now it is time that words should be translated into actions'."

Referring to the situation in the country, Jacob says that he expects "a serious and positive policy change regarding religious minorities in Pakistan from the present coalition government, especially in the fields of legislation, media and education. And we expect these changes in the constitutional package that the Pakistan Peoples Party is planning to introduce.

Jacob thinks it is urgent that the parliament be opened to representatives of the various minorities in the country. Still today, there are no Christians or other religious representatives in the high chamber of Majlisnon. In fact, Jacob says, religious minorities had no participation in country’s legislation process, even if the legislation was being done for them. On this point as well, Jacob hopes in the promises made by the coalition headed by Zardari. He hopes that as soon as possible, there will be significant minority representation in the senate, the real decision-making body in the Pakistani legislative system.

The expectations of the secretary of the NJCP are nonetheless being extended to all sectors of social life in the country. Jacob does not omit, for example, the social and economic areas. Minorities are struggling to find space in the world of work and in the various areas of public life in Pakistan. In his view, "the economic rights and advancement of minorities should be top of the list."

Regarding the recent appointment of the Catholic Shahbaz Bhatti as federal minister for minorities, the secretary of the NJCP believes that this is the best choice for such a position, and says he is convinced that the new minister will be able to play an important role in removing discriminatory legislation still existing in the country. Jacob suggests in this regard the institution, in the near term, of a commission that would investigate the widespread and improper use of the law on blasphemy, which he calls a major hindrance in interfaith harmony and dialogue.

Like Jacob, Meboob Sada, director of the Christian Study Centre (CSC), says that he is hopeful for the future of coexistence among the various religions, and for renewed attention toward minorities.

Interviewed by AsiaNews, the head of the ecumenical organization in Rawalpindi, involved in interreligious dialogue, says that recently "we are seeing a positive sign in the country; media is giving good coverage to this issue now." For Sada, interreligious dialogue is not the only necessity for the country, but he considers this the basis for the development of civil and peaceful coexistence among the population.

The director of the CSC is also optimistic about the possible effects of the statements by President Zardari at the UN. Sada acknowledges that behind the initiative in New York, as also behind the declarations of the president, there are political motivations that go beyond interreligious dialogue. The head of the ecumenical organization nonetheless says he believes that such meetings can contribute to a change in the media, and to providing opportunities for open debate among Christians and Muslims. In regard to the recent past, Sada notes that today it is not only Christians seeking an encounter and dialogue: "this is a positive sign for all of us."

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