Pakistani archbishop says assassination shows dangerous rise in extremism
By Kevin J. Jones, Staff Writer
Archbishop of Lahore Lawrence J. Saldanha
Archbishop of Lahore Lawrence J. Saldanha

.- Assassinated Pakistani Gov. Salman Taseer was a “staunch defender” of the rights of minorities and stood up to extremist groups, the Catholic Archbishop of Lahore said Jan. 6. The archbishop decried the mindset of “religious fanaticism” in the country and warned that its extremists are winning.

“Christians are deeply shocked and disturbed by the death of a high profile leader,” Archbishop Lawrence Saldanha said in a Jan. 6 CNA interview. “Salman Taseer broke no law but he only questioned the validity of the present law, calling it a ‘man-made law’ which could be changed. For that he was killed.”

The Jan. 4 shooting of Gov. Taseer, who headed Punjab state, came at the hands of a bodyguard reportedly angered over the governor’s opposition to the country’s strict anti-blasphemy law. The governor had sought a pardon for Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five who has been sentenced to death under the law on what her lawyers say are fabricated charges.

On Jan. 6 a group of lawyers, religious leaders, and other supporters welcomed the accused murderer at the courts, with some showering him with rose petals and placing a garland around his neck. This reception, the archbishop said, was “shameful” and “indicative of the mindset of religious fanaticism prevailing in Pakistan today.”

“The illiterate people are under the influence of the narrow, literalist interpretation of ultra-conservative Islam,” he commented. “The moderates are losing ground and are being shouted down if they dare to speak. So at the moment the extremists are winning and it is difficult to curb their aggression. Only the Army can stop this aggressive trend by force.”

The most promising effort to address the blasphemy law has come from Sherry Rahman, a member of the National Assembly. She tabled a proposal to introduce amendments to the law, but it has not yet been discussed in parliament.

The “ultra-conservatives” conducted a country-wide strike on Dec. 31, Archbishop Saldanha said. They called on the masses to “defend the honor of the Prophet” and not to tolerate any change in the law.

“This is a disturbing development that they can prevent any change in the law by playing on the religious feelings of the public,” the archbishop remarked. “We Christians feel that cosmetic changes in the Law do not have any real effect on the fanatics. Rather we call for a total repeal of the Blasphemy Law – but that seems to be a far cry in the present charged atmosphere.”

He noted Christians’ fear about their future vulnerability. Church security was “unprecedented” during Christmas and New Year, with armed soldiers on guard during services.

“In this highly tense scenario, a spark can set off a big reaction and result in a lot of destruction. That is why we have to move cautiously,” he explained.

He was also grateful to the late governor.

Archbishop Saldanha, who is president of the Pakistan Catholic Bishops’ Conference, issued a Jan. 5 statement praising Gov. Taseer’s “courageous stand” for Bibi and against the blasphemy law. The statement characterized him as “a martyr of justice and religious freedom.”

The archbishop also sent a personal sympathy card to the governor’s widow and family. Pakistan’s Christians have “quietly prayed” for the governor and some human rights groups have made strong statements condemning the killing.

Asked how Christians outside of Pakistan should respond to the blasphemy law, he said they may send “polite letters” to Pakistan’s embassies and letters of concern and support to the Foreign Ministry of Pakistan.

Their political representatives could also advocate on behalf of minorities.

The upcoming year will be “tense and difficult” for the Christian churches in Pakistan, Archbishop Saldanha said.

He urged prayers from the wider Catholic community and increased advocacy on behalf of religious minorities in Pakistan.

“Making human rights issues contingent to the granting of foreign aid would be very effective,” he suggested.

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