Wednesday 24 June 2015

"Asia Bibi's imprisonment is a political and not a legal issue"

Archbishop Joseph Coutts. Foto: Edgar Sousa/Renascença
This is a full transcript of my interview with Archbishop Joseph Coutts, of Karachi, Pakistan, about the situation of Christians in Pakistan, the Blasphemy laws and Asia Bibi.
The news story, in Portuguese, can be found here.

Transcrição integral da entrevista ao Arcebispo Joseph Coutts, de Karachi, sobre a situação dos cristãos no Paquistão, a lei da blasfémia e Asia Bibi. A reportagem pode ser vista aqui.

Occasionally we hear stories of persecution coming out of Pakistan, bombings, killings and so on. But what is life like for Christians on a daily basis in your country?
Unfortunately the news that gets out is all the negative news.

When you use the word persecution, I'd just like to clarify that, if you mean persecution by the State or the government is persecuting the Christians, that is not the case.

Of course, as a small religious minority in Pakistan, we have always faced discrimination and are trying to fight against it, things like that were always there, there were always difficulties. But what we are experiencing now, that you are hearing about, the bombing of churches and attacking of Christians, that is a new phenomenon; it’s a new experience for us.

It was a traumatic experience when it happened the first time, in 2001, just after the Americans began bombing Afghanistan, after 9/11, in October. Shortly after that the reaction was very strong, because thousands of Afghan refugees started arriving in Pakistan and all the pictures of women and children crying... Two angry young men, Muslims, entered a church and just started shooting on a Sunday morning, they killed 14 Christians and injured many others.

That was the first time really that Muslims came and attacked a church! We never had that before. Since then we have had even worse experiences. Just this year two more churches were bombed. So this is not coming from the government, it is coming from those extremist groups who have their own agenda and who are a threat even to our Government and other moderate Muslims.

Do you feel that the Government does all it can to protect you?
The Government itself is not in a strong position.

Finally, last year in June 2014 the Government took the decision and the army launched a very big offensive involving about 30 thousand soldiers, with air support, in the mountains bordering Afghanistan, where many of these extremists have found a very good refuge. It's a very difficult terrain, very difficult to control, and this is where they had their factories, producing their homemade bombs, the suicide jackets and things like that. The army action is still ongoing, and we hear reports that there has been some success, but it’s a very slippery adversary, they can very easily slip across the border into Afghanistan, until the heat is off, regroup and start again. So it is a very tricky, difficult and dangerous situation we are in.

Take the current time, Ramadan. Does it affect Christians at all? Are they still free to eat in public during the day, for example?
We see that overall society in Pakistan is becoming more and more Islamised. In this sense, and this is a good example, during Ramadan we see a gradual increasing in the position of Islamic rules that eating houses should be closed and nobody should be found eating during the time of Ramadan, whether Christian or Muslim, and a few years ago it was not so. So there is hardly an option left.

Of course, being Pakistani Christians we are aware of this and we wouldn't want to desecrate or show disrespect for this very deeply religious activity of fasting.

Is there a difference between the city and the countryside? Or from region to region?
I think there are certain areas where there is more prejudice. I am in the large city of Karachi, in the South, which is our largest city, with a population which is easily twice that of Portugal, a big commercial and industrial city, very cosmopolitan, with people of different ethnic groups, many Hindus there - unlike other parts of Pakistan. Things had always been more tolerant in Karachi, while in other areas, specially the rural areas, where the imam still a strong religious and leadership role, with the use of the mosque loudspeaker, if the imam happens to be a fanatic it becomes very easy for him to use the loudspeaker to rouse the sentiments of the people, and this is what has happened not only in villages but also in cities where a false blasphemy accusation.

If the imam takes it up and announces it over the city or the village mosque, then even the Muslims who are sitting neutral, if they hear that the holy book has been desecrated, or the name of the holy prophet has been maligned there is an emotional reaction.

If you were approached by a Muslim seeking conversion and baptism, how would you handle the situation?
Nowadays we would handle it very carefully, with great caution, because it could also well be a trap, and that has also happened, people coming just to try and get us into trouble.

But basically our task, as Christians is not to convert people, but to be witnesses to our faith, to show what it means for us to be Christian, and to be Christian in that particular milieu, and I think much of what we do and say is reflected in all the institutions we have. The Church is very strong in the field of education, we have hundreds of schools, we are generally highly respected and there are many Muslims in our school, many of our teachers, together with Christians, the staff is common. For example, in Karachi we have only one Catholic doctor. The medical advisor is a Hindu and nearly all the other doctors are Muslims. It is known as the Holy Family hospital and it is well known.

In this respect, in terms of conversions and baptisms, for example, do you find that the more informal Protestant churches have more freedom? And does that present difficulties for you?
The freedom is there, but if you misuse it you get into trouble.

Let's be very clear... Muslims are very sensitive about this idea of conversion. When the blasphemy law was passed they wanted to pass another law that if a Muslim changes his religion, he should be declared an apostate and killed. It was not made into law, but it shows you that the thinking is already there.

Are Christians the most oppressed religious minority in Pakistan, or do other groups have it worse than you?
There is a group called the Ahmadis, or Mirzais. The Ahmadis say they are Muslims, but officially they were declared non-Muslims in the 70s, and they say that is not fair. So this is really an internal theological problem there, which makes it very difficult for us to interfere in any way, not being Muslims. They say they are Muslims, but Pakistan is the only country, I guess, where they have officially been declared non-Muslims, they are really being persecuted.
The fact the Pakistan is such a homogenously Sunni Muslim country, does that bring you closer to Hindus, Shiites, etc? 
I don't know whether you would call it a homogenous Sunni country... We have a very large minority of Shiites. I don't know the exact figures, but certainly not less than 20%, which is not a small minority. Then there are also other branches of the Shiite movement.

Where the problem is coming from, from the religious point of view, is not from all the Sunnis, it is from some branches. For example, we have the Wahhabis, the Deobandis, these are all Sunni groups. But Wahhabi Islam is the kind of Islam you find in Saudi Arabia, and it is a very narrow and restricted form of Islam. It is the Wahhabis, usually, who are very intolerant and do not easily accept the Shiites and other small groups, like the Ismailis within the Shiites.

Would you say that Wahabbiism is a relatively new phenomenon in Pakistan? Is this a different form of Islam than your father would have recognized in Muslim communities?
This kind of Islam has grown in the last couple of decades. We never had this before. It has come up... There are a number of factors, but this form of Jihadi Islam, promotion of the idea of Jihad, this happened when the Soviet Union entered Afghanistan in 1979 and then that threw a lot of fear into the Western world. 

Remember that is 79/80 the Soviet Union was still a superpower; in Europe you still had the Berlin Wall. So what it meant was that Afghanistan had fallen to communism, and Pakistan might be next. “So stop the communists!” Because if Pakistan fell, it meant an opening to the Gulf and to the source of the Western world's oil, so the USA, with Saudi Arabia and with our government said they better stop the communists right there, and they found the people to do the fighting, the extremist groups. 

The idea of Jihad was officially promoted. Jihad in the sense of taking up weapons and fighting the enemy. The enemy were the atheists, the communists who had entered Afghanistan, a country that is 100% Muslim. So it really appealed to any believing Muslim: Stop atheism, and you are protecting your brother Muslims. So hundreds of young men were trained, with American and Saudi help, to go and fight in Afghanistan.

So what happened to the arms that came in? Given it’s a country with so much corruption, a good percentage went into the black market, into the hands of criminals, drug dealers, into the hands of political parties, and others. With the result that nowadays Pakistan is afloat with small arms, it is very easy to obtain even hand grenades, submachine guns and things like that.

Some of these groups are better armed than our police force. So it is really a big challenge for our government. Our police was not trained in this kind of warfare, using suicide bombings, which most Muslims say is Haram, forbidden, just like in Christianity. But they justify it.

So there are strange things happening within Islam, and what is dangerous is that these groups which were quite isolated and had different agendas, such as Boko Haram, Isis, and here you had the Afghan Taliban, now you also have the Pakistani Taliban, you have Al-Qaeda, it seems they are spreading a new kind of Islam that was not there.  

Has there been an attempt by the more traditional Islamic forces of the Indian subcontinent to try and counter the influence of this Jihadi Islam, and is there any chance they will succeed?
They may be few in number, but they are well armed and well supported. From where exactly, I wouldn't know, and that is what our government would like to know. 

You see the Madrassa, which has been an Islamic institution for centuries, was just a school where you studied the Koran, but when 9/11 came and we had these issues, many madrassas were used as breeding grounds for the selection of young men to be brainwashed, religiously, to go and fight.

And up to now we don't know how many new madrassas just sprang up during those days. Our present government is trying to control that, and to see what is being taught in these madrassas, because many of the problems arise from there. They are fertile ground to recruit young men with the idea of Jihad. 

Are there any high ranking Christians in the Armed forces, police forces, judiciary, for example?
The highest army officer we have is a two star general, just one, but we do have others up to the rank of colonel, a few brigadiers, many majors.

So you would not say that Christians are kept out of the armed forces...
No, but I would say it is impossible to have the Chief of Staff as a Christian... And officially our Constitution says that the President and the Prime minister have to be Muslim. 

Of course you have Christian politicians...
We have a minister now, a federal minister for ports and shipping. 

So there is some participation in the Public, military and political life, for example.
Yes, there is, there is. 

We have heard so much about the blasphemy laws, for so many years now, has anything at all been done to at least reduce their harm?
Ever since this law was introduced, we as Christians have been protesting.

Of course it brings an immediate emotional reaction. The point that has finally got across to the Muslims who did not want this law abolished is not just the abolition of the law but the way the law is framed, that we need safeguards to prevent the misuse of this law, which is what has been happening all along.

I think there is more awareness now in the country. Earlier it was just not accepted that what was happening was that the law was being misused to settle personal enmities, jealousy and other things, not just to get people into trouble, but even to get them killed. And there is talk, more and more, of putting in some safeguards to prevent this from happening.

Which you would consider a success?
It’s something, definitely! Because things are bad, the way it is being misused.

Do you have any idea how many people in general are in prison at the moment because of the blasphemy laws?
There are statistics, but I don't want to give the wrong figures at the moment. There are many Christians, but many Muslims as well.

But are we talking about dozens or hundreds?
Not hundreds, but certainly dozens.

Because this affects not only Christians...
The law is for everybody! And at the moment, statistically, there are more Muslims in jail for blasphemy than Christians.

The Government has now passed a law stating that the first thing to do is to have the person examined for his mental state of mind, because some of the cases have happened with people who were not mentally sound. It is very easy to want to kill such a person, so the person first has to undergo a psychological test.

Nobody has ever been executed because of a blasphemy law, but it is still life threatening just to be accused, is it not?
Yes, that is right. The law has not yet executed anybody for Blasphemy, but all the killings have been extra-judicial and they have been like lynchings. The emotions take over and before the person has a chance to clear his name, it is too late.

Sometimes even after acquittal...
That has also happened. A few years ago there was a case of a 13 or 14 year old boy accused of Blasphemy, of having written very bad words on the wall of a mosque. Finally, when the case came up in the high court it was proved that the boy was hardly literate and that it was impossible for him to have written those kinds of words. He was rightly acquitted by the high court, but the fanatics kept screaming for his life. There was an attempt to kill him. With him were his two uncles, who were also accused. They killed one, in a drive-by shooting by two Muslims on a motorcycle, and the boy and the other uncle were slightly injured. They had to be hidden and were finally given asylum in Germany, I don't know where they are now. This was over 10 years ago. They were Christians.

Of course the most famous victim of the blasphemy laws has been Asia Bibi, what news is there of her? Is she ill?
I wouldn't be able to give you up to date condition of Asia Bibi, I am right down in Karachi and she is up North, about 1300 km away, our Justice and Peace Commission is handling the case, with a number of NGO's supporting, but I don't have the latest information, so it would not be fair to say anything right now.

When Western governments and influential figures speak about her case and put pressure on the Pakistani government, might this be counterproductive?
Yes, because you should understand that it is not just the government. The Government is not strong. This kind of extremist fanaticism is very strong, in the sense that if you are the judge you will be threatened, and you will be very careful before going against an existing decision of the court for the death penalty.

A few years back we had a parliamentarian, a very fine lady, a Muslim, who had said she would put in a petition in Parliament to review the blasphemy law. The intention was, ultimately, to abolish it. When some fanatics came to know this they started threatening her, and the threats were taken seriously.

She being a very capable lady, a parliamentarian and otherwise very knowledgeable, was appointed an ambassador to another country, to protect her. She is back now after a few years.

So that is how it is. It is not the government alone that has the power to take the decision. They have the power, but if they make the decision they also fear the reaction.

Why is she even still in jail? Is it a legal issue, or a political issue?
It is more political, and it is fear of the extremists.

I'll give you another example. Shortly after Asia Bibi was condemned to death, by the lower court and not yet by the higher court, it was none other than the governor of the most powerful province of Pakistan who, being a very fair minded person, a Muslim, went to the jail to visit Asia Bibi and suggested she write an appeal to the President of the Republic of Pakistan, because the President has the power to commute a death sentence. And he told her not to worry, because he would take her appeal personally and present it to the president. 

When that appeared in the press the next day, the fanatics went mad! Who was the President of the Republic to grant pardon to somebody who has insulted the prophet? The best remedy is death!

So when you are up against this kind of thinking, and these extremists are not only ready to kill, they are ready to die. And that is where you have this whole thing of suicide bombing.

Do you believe she will be freed, eventually?
That would only be a guess. The efforts continue, and that won't stop.

You were born before partition...
As many people were!

And is your family originally from Amritsar, where you were born?
No, my parents are originally from further South, from a place called Goa.

(Edgar Sousa/Renascença)
When there was partition and your family found themselves in Pakistan, a new country formed especially for the Muslim community, did it ever occur to them or to any Christians who found themselves in that situation, to move away? Did it occur to them that things might reach this situation?
No. Because nearly all the Christians in Pakistan were already where they are. My father had an option, because he was working in a multinational company and if he had wanted to stay in India he could have asked to be transferred to Delhi, or somewhere else, but he just continued in Lahore. So there was no question there, and I think most of the Christians were quite happy.

Remember that at that time the founder of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah had made a beautiful speech, where he said to the Parliament: “You are free to go to the mosque, to the temple or to any place of worship. What you believe has nothing to do with the State. We must all now learn to be Pakistanis first”, which was very reassuring. So the stress was not on being Muslim or non-Muslim, but on being Pakistanis in the new country.

At that time, I can only imagine, because I was a couple of years old, everybody must have been very happy with that. But what we have been seeing, as things have been developing, the idea of Pakistan as a homeland for Muslims, as a modern democratic state… Now we hear the extremists saying they don't want democracy, it is a Western concept, they want a Caliphate, an Islamic State, which is something completely different from what the founding fathers of Pakistan had in mind. 

And that is where the real clash is. It is not Muslim-Christian, it is a whole new ideology, and these extremists are basically against the State. When they attack us it is to embarrass the state. 

If things don't improve within the next few years, if they get worse, as is happening in many Middle Eastern countries, for example, is there a future for Christians in Pakistan?
Some already think that there is no future. 

A number of Christians, a few hundred perhaps, have already found refuge in Sri Lanka, because visas are not too difficult to obtain, a few hundred fled to Thailand, precisely because they see no future. But for me, personally, we should not give up hope.

If there is a young couple who tell you they are thinking of leaving, do you discourage them from going?
Yes I would. Because I think they also have very simple ideas, just as you have these migrants coming to Europe, crossing the Mediterranean. They have an idea that things will be very easy once they go abroad. I would never advise anybody to do that. There have been extreme cases, where people have been threatened for various reasons, where we have supported them, as individuals to seek refuge. There are other examples of enlightened Muslims, who have spoken against extremism... 

I remember when Osama Bin Laden was still alive and was considered a hero, and he declared a Jihad against all the Americans, and all non-Muslims, and there was a good imam who gave a very good speech, a very good talk, explaining what Jihad really means, and he said this is not Jihad, only a legitimate authority can declare Jihad and you have to be very clear who the enemy is, and he gave very good, logical reasons. Within a week he was killed by a suicide bomber. So it is not just a question of being threatened. Most sensible people, moderate people, who want to live peaceful lives, regardless of their religion, at the moment, are under threat in Pakistan.

Is moving to India an option?
A number of Hindus have considered that option, they would feel more welcome there, especially with the present government in India.

So your family is from Goa, do you trace your history to the presence of the Portuguese in Goa? Were your ancestors converted by the Portuguese?
I wouldn't know exactly. They say that when the Portuguese arrived the Franciscans were already in Goa. So it is not as simple as that. Because Christianity was, for sure, already there since the second century, lower down in Kerala.

They say they found a cross identical to the St. Thomas cross in Goa recently. There is no historical evidence, but they say that St. Thomas and St. Bartholomew went to that coastal area. The whole area was a port, and a port brings all sorts of people together. There were Armenian Christians who were traders, Christians from Persia, and other parts, who travelled this coastal area. And usually in a coastal area you get a mixture of different kinds of people. 

So it is not very clear at what point Christianity arrived. It certainly developed much more when the Portuguese arrived, it became much stronger. 

Is there a memory of the first conversion in your family?
Because we were away from Goa, and even for me Goa is nothing more than a tourist spot, although I do have first cousins there, much of my family is in different parts of the World. Canada, a brother settled in Sweden, so really I have been away from my roots since birth.

We hear so many appeals from the Middle East, Iraq, Syria, from Patriarchs, Archbishops, for help. But what exactly can we do, for example, to help the Pakistani Christians?
If you are talking about financial help, I would say you are already doing it, through Aid to the Church in Need. I am not here to collect funds, but to create awareness, at the invitation of ACN. 

You are on the ground, you see how the money is spent and the effects of donations made here...
Definitely, in Pakistan, Aid to the Church in Need has been a very good benefactor for many years, building churches, convents, the education of seminarians for the priesthood. Any other pastoral needs, ACN has been there to help us and they still help us! 

As for the really big needs in Syria and Iraq, we pray to God that we don't reach a situation like that.

When you hear, in Pakistan, that people are praying for you. Does that help?
Yes. I was very moved yesterday when I went to Guimarães. The faith of the people, a living faith, and also the concern, the special prayers, with banners which depicted persecution. I recognized the scenes in two of them, and there were others from Iraq, Syria, Nigeria as well.

So the prayers and the sincerity of the people who assured us that they would continue praying, is something very moving, which I take back with me, to our people. 

The Archbishop and yours truly  (Edgar Sousa/Renascença)

No comments:

Post a Comment