The president bishop of the Church of Pakistan has urged the superior judiciary to play its role in ensuring justice and protection of the fundamental human rights of all citizens, especially the freedom to practice their respective religions or belief.
Addressing an event organised to pay tribute to Alvin Robert Cornelius, the late chief justice of Pakistan, in which Chief Justice Umar Ata Bandial was the chief guest, Church of Pakistan (CoP) President Bishop Azad Marshall said justice and freedom of religion or belief are closely correlated, as both are essential components of a free and democratic society.
“The right to practice one’s religion or belief without fear of persecution or discrimination is a fundamental human right, recognised by international law and enshrined in many national constitutions, including Pakistan,” he said.
He added that in order for individuals to exercise their freedom of religion or belief, they must be able to do so without fear of coercion or discrimination, and with full protection of the law.
“This requires a justice system that is fair, impartial, and independent, and that upholds the rule of law and human rights,” the senior church leader emphasised.
Bishop Marshall said that a just society must also ensure that individuals are not discriminated against on the basis of their religion or belief, and that they are able to access the same opportunities and protections as all other members of society.
This includes access to education, employment, healthcare, and other basic services, as well as the right to participate fully in the political and social life of the community, he added.
“When justice is not upheld and individuals are persecuted or discriminated against because of their religion or belief, it can lead to conflict, instability, and a breakdown of social trust,” he said, adding that when freedom of religion or belief is protected and respected, it can contribute to social harmony, mutual respect, and a more peaceful and inclusive society.
Bishop Marshall referred to the evolution of multi-religious communities in the United Arab Emirates as a shining example of religious tolerance.
“In the Arabic Faiths Center in Abu Dhabi lies a Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, handwritten by Rabbis, prayed over in New York City and completed in Abu Dhabi by a Mufti and the President of UAE.
“Even then, there are boundaries, allocated spaces and rules that bind the diverse bodies of believers into self-contained worship to avoid spillover and communal tensions. The same communities, who cannot bear to be seen on the same street in their own countries, share a synergy of learning, development and output, sharing offices, schools and buildings in the UAE. This semblance of harmony however crumbles when these same people/communities return to their homelands where the rules and powerplay shifts,” he said.
Paying tribute to the late Justice Cornelius, Bishop Marshall said that the Christian jurist and legal philosopher’s contributions to Pakistan’s judicial history will always be a source of inspiration for generations of lawyers and judges in Pakistan and beyond.
“During his tenure as chief justice, Cornelius tried to ensure protection and enforcement of fundamental rights in Pakistan,” he said.
Stressing the need to enforce Article 20 of Pakistan’s Constitution in letter and spirit, Bishop Marshall said that the provision confers citizens the right to profess and practice their religions as well as the right to propagate their beliefs to others.
“It is important to note that this right to propagate religion is not limited to Muslims only. All other communities are also conferred with this right.
“However, this should not be seen as a right to encourage conversions but more importantly, should be seen as a right against forced conversions or imposing beliefs on others,” he said, referring to the issue of forced conversion and marriages of underage minority girls, particularly Christian and Hindus.
The church leader demanded strict implementation of the child marriage restraint laws as well as legislation for the protection of minority girls as a deterrent against forced conversions.
“We need to understand that such conversions and marriages are a cover for sexual exploitation of the girl child and the disconnect in the State law and Sharia laws is helping the perpetrators to elude justice,” he said.
He also called for a strong deterrent against the false accusations of blasphemy and demanded effective procedural and institutional safeguards at the investigative and judicial levels to prevent the misuse of the statutes.
Concluding his address, Bishop Marshall also urged Chief Justice Bandial to take notice of the concerns of the Christian community and other groups regarding the national population census.
“We are already perturbed by the results of the 2017 Census, which, we believe, grossly understates the Christian population. Now that the government is conducting Pakistan’s first digital census, we are again hearing complaints of undercounting, faulty questionaires, and delay tactics by enumerators. I urge the august court to direct the government to ensure a thorough and transparent census process,” he said.