A decade-and-a-half ago Archbishop Sebastian Shaw from Pakistan found much scepticism and little interest in dialogue talking about persecuted Christians from Muslim leaders. After years of building trust, he says that the Islamic leaders themselves are now taking the initiative to speak up for persecuted Christians.
The archbishop of Lahore, Sebastian Francis Shaw, believes that pressure by Islamic scholars is key to encouraging the Government to crack down on extremists who persecute Christians in Pakistan.
Speaking to the pontifical charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), during a recent visit to the foundation’s international headquarters in Germany, the archbishop described the fruits of interreligious dialogue in his home country, and how a recent incident of persecution against Christians seems to have marked a turning point in relations between the Catholic Church and Islam.
Thousands of Christians were forced to flee their homes as a Muslim mob went on the rampage in Jaranwala, Faisalabad, on 16 August, due to rumours that two Christian brothers had desecrated the Quran. Dozens of churches were torched and hundreds of families left homeless as their houses were looted and burned. Fortunately, nobody was killed, but Christians had to sleep in the fields for several nights, as it was too dangerous to return.
“The next day we had a press conference in Lahore, with six or seven Islamic leaders, or ulemas, who are members of our dialogue group. I showed one of them the pictures of children sleeping in the fields, I said: ‘We are only 2% of the population, you are 97%. Why are your people doing this to us?’. He was very upset, and during the press conference he became very emotional, and turning to me, said ‘Bishop, I ask pardon, on behalf of all our people’.”
Muslim voices against radical Islam
Archbishop Sebastian Shaw stresses that the creation of Pakistan was envisioned as a project in religious freedom, where non-Hindus could escape the strict caste system that still held sway in India. Christians in the region where Jaranwala is located were instrumental in ensuring that the Western Punjab joined the newly formed country. However, the rise of radical Islam has been a problem for decades, and the government often lacks the will to crack down on extremists, as this can lead to unrest across the country. “Pakistan is tolerating every evil, but the problem is that this evil then becomes so big that it is difficult to control. Many people were arrested after the riots, mostly members of the extremist TLP party. But the government finds it difficult to punish them, as there could be repercussions in other cities. Traditionally what they do is force reconciliation between Christians and the aggressors, so that we forgive them, and that might be what they will propose this time as well.”
However, Archbishop Shaw believes that things are changing. “The voices of Muslim scholars have become very important, especially where the government and the armed forces find it more difficult to intervene. One of the results of our dialogue is that for the first time many Muslim scholars stood with us, and they are still supporting us. For example, I met with the national leader of one influential Muslim group, Jamaat-e-Islami, in Jaranwala, and he told me that he was very sorry for what had happened, and promised that they would support the children who lost their schoolbooks when their houses were burned. Two weeks ago, they donated books to 200 children. This is a result of our dialogue, and this is why we need to promote dialogue more.”
The archbishop has been heavily involved in interreligious dialogue for many years. He used to be the chairman of the interfaith dialogue commission for the Pakistani Bishops’ Conference, and now that he has been replaced, he continues to work with the dozens of Islamic dialogue partners in his own archdiocese, besides sitting on the Vatican’s Dicastery for Interreligious Dialogue.
Breaking down barriers
Initially, he says, Muslims found the concept of interreligious dialogue difficult to grasp. “At first, many Muslims rejected dialogue, they said Islam is very clear: you are either Muslim, or you are not Muslim, there is nothing to discuss. But after several years of effort, now some of them have an understanding of what we are doing, and what we can achieve together. For example, we studied the Pope’s document on sustainability, Laudato Si’, together. Now, when they see incidents such as those that occurred in Jaranwala, many Muslims feel that this cannot be the image of Pakistan.”
The archbishop hopes that the voices of prominent Muslim leaders denouncing persecution of minorities in Pakistan might give the government the encouragement it needs to protect Christians and other faith groups and punish those who attack them. More importantly, he says that the ulemas are finally taking the initiative themselves. “Just last week we had a meeting in our bishops’ house, during which two ulemas, including the grand imam of Lahore, agreed to organise a national level interfaith conference in the federal capital of Islamabad. In this way they are also influencing the Government to work more for dialogue and for a better society in Pakistan”, he believes.
ACN has been supporting interreligious dialogue in Pakistan for many years, including the co-financing of Christian-Muslim dialogue at the “Peace Centre” in Lahore and other activities for youth people to promote education to peace, solidarity, and dialogue.
In 2023, ACN supported the Don Bosco Football Tournament in Khuspur, which aims to promote an atmosphere of dialogue, mutual respect and understanding between young people in Pakistan from different religious communities, and the participation of young people at the Interfaith Council for Peace and Harmony at Islamabad.