The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has called for stopping the misuse of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and exploitation of minor girls regardless of their faith affiliations, as he offered comfort to Christians suffering from poverty, extremism and terrorism in the country.
The senior leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion arrived in Pakistan on Feb 26, on the invitation of Church of Pakistan Moderator Bishop Azad Marshall to show solidarity with Christians in wake of a terrorist attack on two Anglican priests in Peshawar on Jan 30. During his three-day visit to Pakistan, Archbishop Welby prayed with Christians, listened to their experiences, and raised their concerns related to the protection of freedom of religion with senior national leaders, including Prime Minister (PM) Imran Khan and Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa.
In a wide-ranging interview with Kross Konnection at the British High Commissioner’s residence in Islamabad on the last day of his visit, Archbishop Welby shared that he had stressed creating social cohesion and the importance of respecting people’s freedom of religion, particularly in education systems, during his meetings with government leaders and scholars of different faith groups.
Speaking about the significance of the Anglican Communion and why he was visiting Pakistan at this time, the Archbishop said, “It’s close to my heart because not just Christians, but people of many faiths, including Muslims, suffer — from poverty, from world economic conditions, but particularly, because as one of the leaders of the Anglican Communion, the senior leader of the Anglican Communion, I care deeply about the suffering of Christians, not only Anglicans but of all denominations, in Pakistan. And the Bible tells me to be alongside those who are suffering.”
RELIGIOUS FREEDOM, BLASPHEMY LAW & FORCED CONVERSIONS
Commenting on the religious freedom situation in Pakistan, Archbishop Welby said that though the Pakistani government had expressed its commitment to religious freedom and belief, minorities of all sorts, and also the Muslim majority, suffered in their daily lived experience.
This was, in his view, a cultural reality in the same way as in the United Kingdom there were different cultural realities.
“The law clearly prevents racism but lived experience of many minorities in the UK is of racism. There remains a deep commitment from many religious leaders here, to peace and harmony, to building good communication and making it work. There is a long way to go,” he said.
“There are very clear misuses, as is recognised, of the blasphemy law not only against minorities; however most of the misuses — well over 50 per cent — are Muslims misusing it against Muslims for other reasons,” he said when asked about his impression of the country’s blasphemy statutes.
“If you are going to have a blasphemy law, it is so important that it cannot be misused. One of the things that many religious leaders, including Muslims, are saying is there needs to be a balance between the blasphemy law and its misuse. If one person accuses someone of blasphemy falsely and with malicious intent, they should have a criminal penalty, in the same way as when there has been blasphemy, and the blasphemer should have a criminal penalty,” he added.
Another serious issue pointed out by Welby was the daily experience of forced conversions [of minority girls], child marriage, and access to education and jobs in Pakistan.
When asked what do these issues mean to the worldwide Anglican Communion and what prayer he would pray for those suffering, the Archbishop said, “It means horror, and shock, and sympathy, and the desire to see this not happen under any circumstances. Forced marriage, it does not matter whether it’s a Christian or any other girl, compulsion of young women into marriage that they don’t want is simply wrong. It does not respect their human dignity as people created by God, particularly when it involves forced conversion. It is wrong, piled on wrong!”
“My prayer for them [the victims] is for their release from their circumstances, my prayer for families where this might happen is that protection and my prayer is also thanks for Muslims leaders who work so hard from within the Muslim community, often at personal risk, to bring peace and harmony and prevent this crime, and this sin.”
ISLAMOPHOBIA IN THE WEST & INDIA
In response to a question on Islamophobia in the West, Welby said he shared the concerns of PM Imran on this issue.
“As in all communities, there are religious leaders who are Islamophobic. They are not major religious leaders or well-known, but it exists. There is also racism and the two were often interlinked in a really bad way but there was genuine Islamophobia,” he said, explaining how it had now gotten worse in recent years along with anti-Semitism and racism.
“One of the roles of the Church of England was to combat Islamophobia, which the Queen and I often speak about following her example, is that the church exists to protect minority faith. Our job is to speak up for the minority faith,” he said, adding that he and his wife joined the Muslim community in Central London to denounce the attack in Christchurch, New Zealand.
“When people express Islamophobic views in the church they are told how wrong they are in no uncertain terms,” he added.
Welby said his conversation with PM Imran was largely around interfaith harmony and religious tolerance.
“We talked particularly about education and its role, ensuring that education is used creatively and constructively, which is clearly what he wishes for, and not used as a tool to impose particular views,” he added.
In his meeting with Gen Bajwa, the Archbishop said that he congratulated him on the success of the Pakistan Army against the militant insurgency and at the same time condoled with him on the terrible casualties suffered in Pakistan. Welby also spoke of “the evil of war” and said conflict was always a catastrophe. They also spoke about the need for a serious and holistic approach to tackling radicalisation in all faiths.
Speaking on increasing human rights violations and threats to religious freedom in India, Welby said the Indian Constitution is “very, very clear as is the Pakistan Constitution, as were the words of Jinnah when he founded Pakistan”.
“Jinnah said go freely to your temples, mosques, and churches. He was very open about that. Let’s hold to the genius of those who led the countries when they became independent and not allow the global trend in all faiths towards extremism of small groups to affect us all,” he said.
Speaking on interfaith relations in Pakistan, the Archbishop said there needs to be a real focus on saying that without peace and harmony in religion, we cannot have justice in society.
“Without justice in society we can’t have peace and harmony in religion, the two are interrelated. We must work coherently and holistically for the benefit of the whole person and that has to happen. It’s a huge challenge!”
CRISIS IN GLOBAL CHURCH
Responding to a question on what he wanted to say to Christian youths who were turning away from liturgical churches, as they see them as an extension of a postmodern movement, the Archbishop said, “I’d say that the first question Jesus ask to his disciples in John’s gospel is what you want? So I would say to them what you want? Do you want a set of rules, a creedal system which is right and must be our limits and our boundaries of orthodoxy, but before that, we must seek a relationship with Jesus Christ because the promise of Jesus in the New Testament is He will put His spirit into our hearts, who will lead us into our truth. Through the scriptures above all, through the creeds and the traditions.”
“Therefore, it is in relationship with Jesus Christ that the doctrines and orthodox doctrines we have, come alive in burning love for the needy, the oppressed, and those around, and our lives find a purpose, and we know that we are both loved by God and able to pass God’s love on to others. And that is the best life that could be!”
MARRIAGE & LIFE
Commenting on the biblical orthodoxy on issues of marriage and life, Welby said it is one of the problems that many churches around the world are battling.
“On marriage and human life, it seems to me that we first of all have to acknowledge that there are very big differences of opinion within all the major churches, and even within churches at the Pentecostal churches.
“Second, we have to start by saying that Jesus says to love one another, so even when we disagree we have to disagree while loving one another.”
“Thirdly, we have to hold to a thoughtful, prayerful understanding of the scriptures on marriage and human life. And that is what we are trying to do in the Church of England, and that is what the vast majority of the Anglican Communion are doing, even the ones who disagree with us. They don’t disagree out of post-modernity, they, on the whole, disagree because they have come to a different conclusion on the scriptures. Now we may disagree with them, but it does not make them evil. It means they are seeking to do what is right, faithfully!” he said.
‘PAKISTANI CHURCH SHOULD FOCUS ON FINANCIAL SUSTAINABILITY’
Speaking on what the wider church could do to enhance support to Christian schools, hospitals and other institutions in Pakistan, Archbishop Welby expressed his support to these institutions but stressed the need to make them sustainable instead of relying solely on external sources.
“These issues are very, very close to my heart from family experience. We have discussed in our meetings here how we can get schools to network together around the world, particularly now that we can do it much more easily without travelling, and to share experience and advice on how to tackle these issues, and how to improve the way in which we fund, in which we serve the children, and in the hospitals, how we run hospitals for them to be both financially sustainable but also effective in their message.”
“Let’s face it, it is not good for a country of the dignity of Pakistan to have to rely on external sources for this. The key thing is learning to be sustainable, and that applies to schools and colleges, and also to hospitals and clinics,” he emphasised.