.- The Pakistan governmentâs new approach to national harmony is a âdowngradeâ for Christians and others concerned about religious freedom, Bishop Joseph Coutts of Faisalabad has said.
The government has decided to create a Minister for National Harmony who will look at the wider issue of social cohesion. It has appointed to the post Akram Masih Gill, a Catholic who is the former Minister for Minorities.
However, Bishop Coutts emphasized that Gillâs government rank is below that of Shahbaz Bhatti, the Minister for Minorities whom Muslim extremists assassinated in March. The bishop, who is president of the Pakistan Catholic bishopsâ conference, noted that Bhattiâs cabinet-level post had specific responsibilities for promoting the interests of religious minorities while Gillâs non-cabinet position does not.
âFor me, all this is a step down; itâs a certain downgrade concerning the representation of minorities,â Bishop Coutts told ACN News.
He said the loss of a cabinet-rank minister could not be outweighed by the appointment of Bhattiâs brother, Dr. Paul Bhatti, as minority affairsâ advisor to Pakistanâs Prime Minister.
âIt is true that with Mr. Gillâs appointment and that of Dr. Bhatti there are two chances for the voice of minorities to be heard, but neither will probably have the same impact as that of Shahbaz Bhatti as federal minister,â the bishop said.
There is growing concern that the growth of extremism is silencing Pakistanâs three million Christians as well as Hindus, Sikhs and Shia Muslims.
One key issue is proposed changes to Pakistanâs controversial blasphemy law. The law has been widely abused. It has helped inspire mob violence in response to alleged offenses against Islam such as disrespect to its Prophet Muhammad and to the defacing of paper containing Quran verses.
After Minister Bhatti was killed, his assassin claimed he acted in response to the officialâs criticism of the blasphemy laws.
The alleged assassin of Punjab governor Salman Taseer gave a similar motive. The governor had called for changes to the blasphemy law after mounting outrage at the death sentence given to Asia Bibi, a 45-year-old Christian mother of five.
Christians have been targeted for violence in Pakistan. In the latest suspected targeted killing, 38-year-old Arnold Archie Daas was gunned down Aug. 6 in the Drigh Road Christian colony in the city of Karachi. The Pakistan Christian Post reports that Muslim militants fled the scene after they confirmed Daasâ wounds were fatal.