Pakistani Church; Poor and Oppressed but Full of Vitality and Courage


19 June 08 - The Catholic Church in Pakistan faces a grim reality as it struggles to cope with unprecedented economic and political turmoil, the high cost of living and limited resources.

That was the message of the President of the Pakistani Bishop's Conference today as he and his fellow bishops met with Pope Benedict at the end of their Ad Limina visit.

There are over one million Catholics in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, less than 1% of the total population. Over 97% Muslim, Pakistan has the second largest Muslim population in the world after Indonesia.

In his discourse to Bishops Thursday Pope Benedict noted that Catholic formation, particularly to religious life, strengthens the bonds of cooperation between religions:
"Of particular urgency at the present time is the task of preparing these men - and indeed all catechists and lay leaders - to become effective promoters of interreligious dialogue. They share a responsibility with all Christians in Pakistan to foster understanding and trust with members of other religions by constructing peaceful forums for open conversation".

Pope Benedict's words underlined the urgency of dialogue between the religions in the Islamic Republic. A concern that was addressed by Archbishop Lawrence J. Saldanha, of Lahore, President of the Pakistan Catholic Bishops Conference:
"In the past, our Church was held in high esteem for her educational and medical services. But today we carry out our mission in a hostile and conservative Islamic milieu that is increasingly extremist, intolerant and militant. There is growing pressure to enforce the shariah or Islamic way of life. Islamic laws like the "blasphemy law" have brought death and misery to many innocent people. There is also a trend of forced conversions to Islam by certain religious extremist groups".
The nation's original Constitution drawn up after independence did not discriminate between Muslims and non-Muslims. However, the amendments made have led to the controversial Hudood Ordinance or Blasphemy laws and Shariat Court.
These laws are considered to be relatively strict, and have been the source of controversy in recent years. They mandate the death penalty for anyone defiling the name of Muhammad, life imprisonment for desecrating the Koran, and up to 10 years' imprisonment for insulting another's religious beliefs with intent to outrage religious feelings.

"It is a grim reality that our country faces unprecedented economic and political turmoil. Our church, a Church of the poor, faces great hardships due to the high cost of living. With our limited resources, we Bishops find it more and more difficult to make ends meet".

Despite these obvious obstacles, he and the other six bishops who lead the community there he said, "soldier on as shepherds for their flock". A flock which he described as "simple, poor and oppressed but full of vitality and courage".

Indeed Pope Benedict XVI had high praise for the tiny Catholic community, its spirituality and it's institutions that continue to serve the common good of the Pakistani people, Christian and Muslim alike:

"They demonstrate that the love of Christ is no mere abstraction, but reaches out to every man and woman as it passes through real persons working in the Church's charitable institutions. The Gospel teaches us that Jesus cannot be loved in the abstract (cf. Mt 25:31-37). Those who serve in Catholic hospitals, schools, social and charitable agencies respond to the concrete needs of others, knowing well that they are ministering to the Lord himself through their particular acts of charity".