MUMBAI, India – Catholic leaders in both India and Pakistan have expressed relief that the return of an Indian pilot shot down over Pakistani-controlled Kashmir has lessened the possibility of war between the two nuclear powers.
The pilot, identified as Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, was shot down in his MiG-21 fighter jet on Wednesday and safely ejected.
He was handed over to Indian officials at a border crossing on Friday in a “gesture of peace” by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan.
Cardinal Oswald Gracias, the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India said the Church in India “welcomed” the pilot’s return.
“It is a great joy for the country and his family,” he told Crux.
“Pakistan has respected the Geneva Convention. We hope that this will be the beginning of a process that will deescalate tensions between our neighboring countries and pave the way for peace, dialogue and commitment to strengthening bilateral cooperation in the region and subcontinent,” the cardinal said.
The handover came against the backdrop of blistering cross-border attacks across the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir that continued for a fourth straight day, even as the two nuclear-armed neighbors sought to defuse their most serious confrontation in two decades.
Tens of thousands of Indian and Pakistani soldiers have faced off for years along the Kashmir boundary known as the Line of Control, in one of the world’s most volatile regions.
Tensions have been running high since Indian aircraft crossed into Pakistan on Tuesday carrying out what India called a pre-emptive strike against militants blamed for a Feb. 14 suicide bombing in Indian-controlled Kashmir that killed 40 Indian troops.
Kashmir has been divided but claimed in its entirety by both India and Pakistan since almost immediately after the two countries’ creation in 1947. The countries have fought three wars, two directly related to the disputed region.
In Pakistan, Archbishop Joseph Arshad of Islamabad-Rawalpindi issued a statement to Crux in which he “demanded the leadership of both India and Pakistan to resume peace talks and settle all matters through dialogue.”
“The people of Pakistan and India desire peace and therefore we expect that the international community would also play its role to eradicate the situation that is causing loss to the dignity of human lives and to avoid ruination of this region that would wipe out everything on this part of earth,” said the archbishop, who heads Pakistan’s bishops’ conference.
“Without giving up in the face of difficulties, we all must seek out and follow every possible way of avoiding war, which always results in sorrow and grave consequences for all,” continued Arshad.
He said he was praying that “God grant wisdom to the leadership of both countries to resolve their matters in a way that peace and prosperity may prevail, leading to a better future of people in the region and in the world.”
This article incorporated material from the Associated Press.