Archbishop Arshad: Pakistan’s Christians, 'a small flock strong in faith'
The Pakistani bishops met Pope Francis as part of their Ad limina visit. "A friendly meeting, like a family". The Pakistani Church works for everyone and is appreciated in the field of education and medical care. Dialogue with religious leaders; hopes for young people.
Vatican City (AsiaNews) - Christians in Pakistan are "a small flock", but "strong in faith”, says Msgr. Joseph Arshad, president of the Pakistani Episcopal Conference in an exclusive interview with AsiaNews. We meet him in Rome on the occasion of the five yearly "ad limina" visit of the Pakistani bishops to the Vatican. The prelate speaks of interreligious dialogue, of the work of the Church in society, of Islamic extremism. On this last subject, he wishes to point out that violence "affects everyone, not only Christians, but also mosques and Islamic schools". The problem, he reiterates, is at the base of society which is "also divided along economic lines".
Msgr. Arshad, 53, also chairs the National Justice and Peace Commission. Ordained to the priesthood in 1991 by Card. Fernando Filoni, he studied canon law at the Pontifical Urbanianum University in Rome. Subsequently, for 14 years he worked in the diplomatic service of the Holy See. In 2013, Pope Francis appointed him bishop of Faisalabad. In 2016 the pontiff chose him as apostolic administrator for the diocese of Islamabad-Rawalpindi and then on 10 February last Archbishop of the same diocese.
Excellency, can you speak to us about the Pakistani bishops’ meeting with the Pope during the ad limina visit?
The meeting with Pope Francis was very friendly, like in a family. We sat together and it was a fraternal and familial meeting. We spoke to him about the reality of the Pakistani Church and he encouraged us to move forward in the service we do for society and in our commitment to contribute to peace and harmony within society.
He supports us and loves these Churches that are small and farther away. We thank the Holy Father who welcomed us as brothers. He loves the Pakistani Church, one of the peripheries of the world of which he often speaks. We would love it if one day, if circumstances permit, he could come and meet the Pakistani people.
What is life like for Pakistani Christians? How do they carry out their role in society?
Pakistan is a country of about 200 million inhabitants, of which almost two million Catholics. Although we are a small flock, the service offered by the Church is recognized and appreciated by the whole population and by the government. Our contribution is particularly appreciated in the field of education, health care and social services. Our institutions offer great support to the people and the Pakistani nation.
The Church works for everyone, not just for Christians. For example, in our schools, the majority of students are Muslim. This is why our presence in Pakistan is felt through our institutions that are open to all. On the contrary, I will tell you more: many Muslims want to enter our schools because they know that they can find a good level of education there. They aspire to come to our schools, both because they know they will have more career opportunities, but above all because we form our students from the human point of view.
Students of different religions study together. What bonds are created between them?
Friendships is fostered among those who attend the same schools. I myself have many Muslim friends. The problem is not religious affiliation, but discrimination within society: those who are poor and have no money are automatically identified as bad people. It is an attitude that undermines Pakistani society: those who are poor are marginalized; the rich, are considered superior.
In Pakistan, Christians are often persecuted because of their religion. As a religious minority in a Muslim country, how do you live the faith?
Certainly there are very complex realities, from a political, social and economic point of view. There are various problems in society, which cause suffering not only to Christians but also to Muslims. The origin of this suffering derives from the economic gap that characterizes society: on the one hand, very rich people; on the other, very poor people. The latter, poor and marginalized, are the majority. There is no middle class. So the country is divided between those who have much power and the weak.
Certainly Christians are part of that band of the marginalized and oppressed population. In all their problems, they turn to the Church for help. And the Church offers hope.
In this situation, two aspects are very important for the Church. First of all, interreligious dialogue; then promoting peace and harmony in society. We work in these two fundamental directions, because we are all men and women, both Christians and Muslims. We have all been created by God and it is our duty to respect each other. Today's society needs these values: respect for each other, both from the religious point of view and as human beings.
Is there religious freedom? Can you profess the Gospel in freedom?
If I want to build a church, I have the right to buy the land to build the place of worship. Priests have the freedom to move to celebrate mass in churches in the country. Among our faithful we can freely profess the teachings of Christ.
But everywhere there is a security problem. And I want to emphasize that the problem is for everyone, not just for Christians. Mosques and Muslim schools are also attacked by fundamentalists. There is a general problem in society. But we must also reiterate that the government helps us protect churches. For example, the authorities send soldiers to garrison Christian sites during religious services. The problem is the widespread mentality in the country, the intolerance of fundamentalist groups that aspire to spread their own view of Islam in Pakistan.
Is it possible to dialogue with the militants?
We have established a dialogue with religious leaders. We also participate in their celebrations and invite them to be present at ours, like Christmas and Easter. In this way an atmosphere of dialogue takes shape.
Thanks to the creation of these relationships, when there is a disagreement in society or in villages, we are able to intervene together in time and we are able to resolve the conflict before it becomes bigger. We often manage to save people before the news spreads. In our country it often happens that large crowds gather and take the law into their hands. Instead we, through interreligious groups, try to avoid this happening.
What do you hope for the Pakistani Church? And in particular for young people, to whom the next Synod is dedicated?
This year in Pakistan we are celebrating the Year of the Eucharist. This spiritual experience of Eucharistic devotion is a very important initiative for our Catholic people. Despite the problems we face every day, the faith of our people is still very strong, both in young people and in the elderly. Through this Year of the Eucharist, the faith of our people will be renewed and will become stronger. We have several programs at the local level, such as Eucharistic processions and spiritual retreats. Moreover, in the parishes of all the dioceses seminars are organized to explain the sacraments.
As far as young people are concerned, the Synod dedicated to them is very important for us, because 60% of the Pakistani population is made up of young people. We hope that this Synod will spread a message with which to contribute to the formation of Pakistan's young people.