04/21/2009, 00.00
PAKISTAN
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Archbishop of Lahore: Sharia in the Swat Valley is contrary to Pakistan's founding principles

by Qaiser Felix
Archbishop Saldanha denounces the violation of minority and women's rights. The archbishop expresses his concern "in matters concerning criminal justice," and denounces abuses and violence by the Taliban toward Christian, Sikh, and Hindu places of worship and schools. The Catholic Church supports the Muttahida Quami Movement, the only party that has opposed the "forces of darkness."

Lahore (AsiaNews) - Sharia law in the Swat Valley demonstrates a "total neglect" of minorities and their rights, sanctioned by the founding father of the country in 1947, at the Constituent Assembly. This is the position of Lawrence John Saldanha, archbishop of Lahore and president of the Pakistani bishops' conference, who expresses special concern "in matters concerning criminal justice."

The prelate has sent an open letter to President Asif Ali Zardari, Prime Minister Raza Gilani, and the Justice Minister of the government of the North-West Frontier Province, in which he stresses his "sorrow that your government has failed to take stock of the concerns of civil society" about the introduction of Islamic law into the Swat Valley. This, in fact, "jeopardizes the socio-economic and cultural growth" in the region, legitimizes the claims of the Taliban, who are destroying "the constitutional protections for minorities and women."

The letter was also signed by Peter Jacob, executive secretary of the National Commission for Justice and Peace. The Catholic leaders explain that the climate of "impunity" surrounding the Taliban's "killing machine of terror" perpetrates crimes and violence against "the small communities of Hindus, Sikhs and Christians." The Christian minorities of the NWFP are forced to endure "unemployment, intimidation and migration" because of the imposition of the Jizya, the tax levied by Muslims on the faithful of the religions of the Book (Christians and Jews). The Islamic extremists have defaced the "statues of the Buddha" and razed to the ground "St. Mary’s School, Convent, and Chapel at Sangota (Swat)." The fundamentalists have also targeted the school of Don Bosco, in Bannu. Archbishop Saldanha says that "several of our institutions have received threats."

Special concern has been prompted by the creation of "a parallel legal system," based on Islamic law. "This decision," the archbishop says, "must be put to a vote by the judges and the people." Another significant aspect is the " ideological extremism" that seems to be gaining a foothold in the country. In the open letter, there is a reference to the inaugural address - in 1947 - of the founder of the country to the Constituent Assembly: Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah recalled that religion is a "personal matter" and has nothing to do with "the affairs of state."

In a second letter, addressed to the head of the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), Archbishop Saldanha and Peter Jacob express their "appreciation" for the only party in parliament that has "opposed the introduction of Sharia in the Swat." "This contribution," the letter reads, "aimed to save the nation from falling into darkness, will always be remembered."

Catholics "share" the concerns of the members of the MQM over the "tacit approval" of the actions of the terrorists, and their plans, aimed at overturning "the social and political order" of the country. Peter Jacob and Archbishop Saldanha invite the Muttahida Quami Movement to "continue its efforts" to create a "tolerant and pluralist" Pakistani society.

The Taliban, meanwhile, are continuing their battle to extend Islamic law to the entire country, and say they have no intention of "giving up weapons: we are Pashtun, and every Pashtun has a weapon," says Muslim Khan, spokesman of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. Last Sunday, Sufi Muhammad, the spiritual leader of the movement Tahrik-e-Nifaz Shariat Muhammadi, recalled that "only Islamic law is valid" in the Swat Valley, and the entire judicial system of Pakistan must be regulated "according to the dictates of Sharia." The fundamentalist leader emphasized that "there is no room for democracy" in Islam, and called Western governments "a system of infidels" that has divided the country thanks to the support of the Supreme Court and the local high courts.

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