The Pakistan government’s new approach to national harmony is a “downgrade” 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 Gill’s 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 bishops’ conference, noted that Bhatti’s cabinet-level post had specific responsibilities for promoting the interests of religious minorities while Gill’s non-cabinet position does not.
“For me, all this is a step down; it’s a certain downgrade concerning the representation of minorities,” Bishop Coutts told ACN News.
He said the loss of a cabinet-rank minister could not be outweighed by the appointment of Bhatti’s brother, Dr. Paul Bhatti, as minority affairs’ advisor to Pakistan’s Prime Minister.
“It is true that with Mr. Gill’s 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,” the bishop said.
There is growing concern that the growth of extremism is silencing Pakistan’s three million Christians as well as Hindus, Sikhs and Shia Muslims.
One key issue is proposed changes to Pakistan’s 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 official’s 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 Daas’ wounds were fatal.