ASIA/PAKISTAN – The Minister of State for Harmony, who meets the Pope: “Dialogue, education, religious freedom: UN Observer come to Pakistan”
Vatican City (Agenzia Fides) – Rebuilding a Pakistan according to the original, secular and tolerant inspiration of Ali Jinnah, the father of the country; working tirelessly for interreligious dialogue and harmony, royal road to improve the status of religious minorities, bearing in mind the delicate chapter of the “blasphemy law”, to help Christian communities to develop, particularly through education; support a “UN Special Commission on Religious minorities” and invite the UN Special Observer on religious tolerance in Pakistan; ask foreign governments to define “special funds for minorities”, in offering economic aid to Pakistan: as reported to Fides, these are the commitments made by the Catholic Akram Gill, Minister of State in the Federal Ministry for the Harmony of the Pakistani Government. Minister Gill, in Italy for several seminars and conferences, tomorrow will be presented to the Holy Father Benedict XVI during the general audience. Akram Gill has released the following interview to Fides:
What are the conditions of religious minorities in Pakistan today?
Religious minorities now suffer from problems that are essentially originated from the government of the dictator Zia-ul-Haq: since 1970 he enacted discriminatory laws against minorities and, in the name of Islam, controlled the state for many years. Today we are working to give new strength to Ali Jinnah’s original inspiration, the founder of Pakistan, who in 1947 sanctioned the Constitution Equal rights for all citizens and freedom to profess one’s faith. Some progress has been made: the current democratic government has introduced a representation of minorities in Parliament and has reserved them 5% share of jobs in the administration of the federal government. We are working to improve the conditions of religious minorities.
What are the most urgent needs for religious minorities?
They are education, economic development, social promotion. Through the access to education, Christians often from poor and marginalized communities, can access the world of work and enterprise. I think the education system needs a global reform: the government is trying to introduce new things and also the Ministry of Harmony will be able to contribute with the proposal to introduce the themes of inter-religious harmony in school curriculum. It is important to build peace and tolerance. I would also like to ask the Christian schools in Pakistan, that have 99% of Muslim students, to provide free schooling for Christian children: it would be a major step forward.
How does the Ministry of Harmony work today?
Primarily through policies and legislation that promote inter-religious harmony in society.
We rely today on a budget of 216 million rupees (about $ 2.5 million) that we will use for programs in favor of minorities. The Ministry will also have a part of funds that the government allocates for other programs, such as Economic Development, which poor communities will benefit from. I would like to launch an appeal to the international community: in the funding that foreign states offer to Pakistan, I would like to see funds reserved for religious minorities-5%. The U.S. and European government could subordinate their financial aid to specific programs for the benefit of minorities. In addition, at an international level, we support the institution, at the UN, of a “Special Commission on Religious Minorities.” In this regard I would like to officially invite the UN Special Observer on religious tolerance in Pakistan, who already visited the country in 1995.
How do you judge the issue of the blasphemy laws?
It is a very delicate and sensitive issue today. It is not a very favorable moment to deal with it after the recent murders carried out: Shabhaz Bhatti and Salman Taseer. Religious parties and Islamic extremists are very strong and do not want to change the law, passed by the dictator Zia-ul-Haq. At this stage it is not possible to act, but we try in the meantime, to motivate the political parties not to encourage the abuses: already this would be an important first step. Then a culture that can lead to a shared review of the law must be created. Since 1986 the law has affected more Muslims than Christians and Hindus, so even Muslims should agree. Again, interreligious dialogue is fundamental: if an atmosphere of religious harmony is not created, no change is possible.
What will you say during the meeting with the Pope?
I will thank him for his attention and support for Pakistani Christians. I will ask him to pray for us and support our efforts in the field of harmony, peace and tolerance. Always confident in his support also to convince Catholic institutions to provide free education to Catholic children in Pakistan.
(PA) (Agenzia Fides 15/11/2011)