Lahore (Agenzia Fides) - On the occasion of the violence against Christians in Jaranwala, a town in Pakistani Punjab where houses and churches were burned (see Fides, 18 and 21/8/2023), "something unthinkable up to a few years ago happened, which testifies to the good fruits given by the patient work of closeness, friendship, relationships and interreligious dialogue that we have initiated in Punjab, Lahore and other dioceses", Archbishop Sebastian Shaw of Lahore told Fides, who traveled to Jaranwala in the last few days with Muslim leaders (see Fides, 22/8/2023) .
"I accompanied three different delegations of Muslim leaders - says the Archbishop - with whom we have established good relations and with whom we share a constant path of encounter and dialogue. They were Sunnis and Shiites, from different schools of Islamic thought. Everyone wanted to be there, they wanted to see with their own eyes. Many of them were moved, all showed solidarity and human closeness with the Christian families affected by the violence, they prayed with us, they shook hands and consoled the people, who welcomed them with kindness, appreciating such gestures. For us, here in Pakistan, these are gestures of great importance because they contribute to changing culture and mentalities, and also because of the media coverage they have had".
One of the three delegations included Abdul Kabir Azad, Imam of the Royal Mosque in Lahore, the largest and most important in Pakistan: "He is a man well known for his service. Hearing his words of firm condemnation of what happened - says Msgr. Shaw - is encouraging and gives hope. Kabir Azad and other leaders have said loud and clear that violence against innocent people is not a teaching of Islam, that it is reprehensible and should not be justified by religion".
In another delegation, the Archbishop reports, "there was Tahir Mehmood Ashrafi, a prominent Pakistani cleric, head of the All Pakistan Ulema Council, a very influential body at a religious and political level. Ahrafi was even moved to tears. On behalf of all Muslims in Pakistan, he asked Christians for forgiveness. He did it in private, speaking to people he met, and he did it in public, at the conference, in front of all the media, who filmed and broadcast his words, for the benefit of the entire public. We appreciated his words very much, we welcomed them in friendship", notes Bishop Shaw.
And he continues: "I was very touched to hear Muslim leaders say to crying Christian mothers: 'Your children are our children. You don't have to worry. We will take care of them'. The solidarity was not only verbal, it was also concrete: the Islamic leaders will bear the education costs of the children of the families affected by the violence in Jaranwala, by granting them scholarships for their schooling, until the university. It is truly remarkable, it demonstrates the sincere disposition, closeness and goodwill of those who disagree with the forms of inter-communal violence and the Muslim imams who instigated it by promoting hatred and religious violence", he said.
Particular attention was also given to destroyed churches: "Muslim leaders have called violence against churches by name, namely desecration and blasphemy, noting that the Prophet Muhammad condemns all violence against religious symbols. They will help us to be rebuilt, with civil institutions, as the Punjab government is rapidly doing for the destroyed churches in Jaranwala".
The Archbishop of Lahore also appreciates the words and actions of members of Islamic political parties, such as Senator Siraj ul-Haq, head of Pakistan Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), the main religious party in the country: the organization of JI's affiliated social welfare agency, the Al-Khidmat Foundation, has pledged to help rebuild damaged Christian homes.
Bishop Shaw notes: “Both in the first hours following the events and in a meeting held today, August 25, Senator Siraj-ul-Haq, expressing his bitterness, pointed out that the burning of churches and homes in response to a case of alleged blasphemy is contrary to the teachings of Islam. He stressed that his party, the JI, believes in the principles of respect for humanity, tolerance and peaceful coexistence, and demands that the perpetrators of such violence be punished in accordance with the law.
The Islamic JI Party has announced that it will convene a
a national Convention in September, including Pakistan's religious minorities, to advance the "Peace Caravan" initiative, emphasizing that "Pakistan belongs to all its citizens, who will live together and protect everyone's life and property. We want to convey the message that Pakistan is home to all religions and that its prosperous future depends on peace. Anyone who destroys peace in the country is an enemy of the nation," Siraj-ul-Haq said. The leader also advocated, at the political level, the creation of a national commission for minority affairs, with the aim of safeguarding the rights of Hindus, Christians, Sikhs and other religious groups.
The Archbishop of Lahore concludes: "This renewed attitude of closeness and solidarity is not the result of chance, but the result of a long and patient commitment in the field of interreligious dialogue, which we have been carrying out for at least 15 years. We now have encouraging signs. We have told Muslim leaders that it is essential to continue on this path.
We often tell them that Christians in Pakistan, a small community, respect Islam and all religious symbols and have no reason to offend Islam, the Prophet or the Koran. They admit that accusations of blasphemy are fabricated for different reasons, for personal quarrels. Christians and Muslims in Pakistan must stand united to face these challenges and to these problems. Dialogue and unity are the means to really improve the situation, to prevent serious episodes of violence from reoccurring and to bring real benefits to coexistence throughout society". (PA) (Agenzia Fides, 25/8/2023)