New leader of Pakistan bishops vows to challenge blasphemy laws

New leader of Pakistan bishops vows to challenge blasphemy laws

MUMBAI – Vowing to pursue a program of “justice and peace,” the newly elected president of the Pakistan Catholic Bishops’ Conference says that agenda will include speaking out against the country’s controversial blasphemy laws.

Critics allege that those laws, which criminalize blasphemy against state-recognized religions, are often abused to oppress religious minorities in the overwhelmingly Muslim nation, as well to settle scores among Muslims themselves.

Famously, an illiterate Catholic woman named Asia Bibi was sentenced to execution by hanging for blasphemy in 2010 and spent almost a decade on Pakistan’s death row, until an international pressure campaign resulted in her release in 2019 and settlement in Canada.

“Innocent people should not be targeted and sentenced,” said Bishop Samson Shukardin of Hyderabad, who was elected the new leader of the Pakistani bishops in early November.

“My mission is to raise my voice and bring help and relief to the innocent victims,” Shukardin told Crux.

The 62-year-old Bishop insisted that while there are anti-Christian forces in Pakistani society, it’s not universal.

“We take this up with the government on a regular basis, and the government has been very supportive,” he said.

“This anti-Christian sentiment is not pan-Pakistan, but [only] in various places,” Shukardin said.

More broadly, Shukardin sketched a social development agenda for his term as conference president.

“Justice and peace will be one of the main priorities as president, [because] our people are facing many difficulties and challenges and, as a Church, we need to address them to make our people more safe,” he said.

Among those difficulties, Shukardin cited a phenomenon of kidnapping young girls from minority communities who are then forced to convert to Islam and to accept an arranged marriage.

“The Church must strive to get justice to the families and girls who are victims,” he said.

Shukardin said he also wants to promote education, given that a substantial share of Pakistan’s Catholic population comes from economically disadvantaged and culturally marginalized sectors of society.

“A vast majority of our people are the ‘weakest of weak’,” he said. “They’re not much educated because of discrimination.

“There is no Catholic university, which is very disadvantageous for our people,” Shukardin said.  “Privatization of schools has reduced educational opportunities due to a lack of resources.”

“Education is a clear priority for all seven bishops, [because it] will empower our people, making them self-reliant and financially independent so they can live dignified lives,” he said.

In a similar vein, Shukardin said health care is also a priority for the conference, “to ensure that lack of resources does not impede access to medical care.”

Finally, given that the estimated 1.3 million Catholics in Pakistan represent less than one percent of the national population, Shukardin said that inter-faith dialogue is also a natural priority.

“It’s fundamental to our mission,” he said. “We share cordial relationships with the majority community and all other minority groups.”

“Dialogue is essential for religious harmony and peace,” Shukardin said, noting that an inter-faith group was scheduled to visit him the morning of his Crux interview to congratulate him on his election as the conference president.

Shukardin succeeds Archbishop Joseph Arshad of Islamabad-Rawalpindi as the leader of the Pakistani bishops. There are six Catholic dioceses in the country, plus one apostolic vicariate.