ROME – Though Cardinal Joseph Coutts retired from his role as Archbishop of Karachi earlier this year, he continues being a strong voice in favor of the Pakistan’s minorities – both Christians and Hindus.
But he’s also a man who loves his country, recognizing that in Pakistan one can find “the good, the bad, and the ugly,” and everything is just a bit more complicated than what it seems in the surface.
In Rome from early October, where he took part in the opening of the synodal process launched by Pope Francis, Coutts spoke with Crux on Monday for close to an hour, as he was finalizing his COVID-19 paperwork to fly back home.
The conversation centered on the anti-forced conversion bill that a Pakistan parliamentary committee rejected last week, following an increase in the number of Christian and Hindu girls being kidnapped, forced to marry and convert to Islam. The proposed bill banned conversion until the age of 18, aligned with the recently adopted law that bans marriage before that age.
However, Coutts also spoke about the role Western country’s military intervention in Muslim-majority countries such Iraq and Afghanistan has had in the radicalization of moderate Islamists and the growth of the view of “us vs. them” among Pakistani Muslims who see local Christians as aligned to Europe and the United States.
Due to length, the interview Coutts gave to Crux will be published in two parts, with the second, regarding the Synod, the United States and its role in creating the Taliban, coming out tomorrow.
Crux: What brought you to Rome this time around?
Coutts: Well, I’m in Rome here this time, as you say, because I’m a member of the committee that is working to prepare for the Synod, which was launched last Sunday … I’m still hanging around. But I’m leaving today.
Have you enjoyed your time in Rome?
Oh, well, it was busy, much busier than I expected.
What brought me to speak with you is what is happening in Pakistan these days, with a strong debate over the forced conversion laws. I understand you’ve been in Rome for the past two weeks, but I wanted to first of all, get your opinion on this bill that was rejected in the past days.
It’s important firstly to understand why it’s become a problem. Every country has its own special situation and peculiarities. Now Pakistan is officially Islamic: it’s called the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. But we do not have all the Islamic laws. Unlike, let’s say Saudi Arabia, where they strictly follow the Sharia Islamic law. No, we don’t have that.
We are still using a lot of the laws from when the British ruled the whole subcontinent, with the few Islamic laws attached. When we had the military dictator from the late 1970s to the late 1980s, he tried to Islamize Pakistan, introducing for instance the infamous blasphemy law. And there are a few other laws, like that of evidence in a court: According to Islamic law, the evidence presented by a woman is half that of a man, even if both are Muslims.
You also need to understand that Pakistan is a federation. We have four provinces. They are like states, because every province has a provincial parliament, a Chief Minister, elected by the people and a Governor from the federal government, and then we have the federal government in the capital, Islamabad. In the province where I live, of which Karachi is the capital, the government had passed a law stipulating that the minimum age for marriage for anybody, any Pakistani citizen, is 18 years. And I think the province for the north, Punjab, which is the most heavily populated province, they had 16 years as the minimum age for marriage.
This did not come up really as a big problem until recently, when we noticed, that a number of Hindu girls and Christian girls were being kidnapped, and then forced into marriage. And we did go to court, we made a lot of noise, protesting writing articles, etc, approaching government officials. Now where the matter has come to a head is that in court, even some lawyers have said in Islamic law, there is no minimum age for marriage or conversion. In Islamic law, there is nothing about minimum age as long as the child of the age of reason and is able to say yes or no.
But a child can say yes or no at six, seven years of age, and yet not know what they’re agreeing to…
Yes. Yes. You can keep using logic [to understanding], but I’m just stating the facts. And then because we do have, and we are a Muslim country, and we do have a few Islamic laws, the government has set up in Islamic ideology counsel, they have also been reviewing this. And therefore, I say, I’m not up to date, because I’ve been here for the past 20 days, half of them in quarantine.
The government itself is struggling to find a solution to this. Because you’ve got to remember when we talk about Islam, it’s not just one monobloc. It’s like Christianity, we have so many different sects and groups, it’s the same thing in Islam. We have the extremists, like, for example, the Taliban, there’s no arguing with them. We are a democracy, the Taliban will say, “what’s democracy? We have to do the will of Allah. Our Constitution is the Quran.”
Pakistan is a democracy, a working democracy so far, and we have laws and as I said, we are able to have a voice, thanks be to God. Although we are a very small minority, we are not a hidden minority. I have also led protests before down the street. We have a very good Human Rights Commission, a lot of women’s groups, Muslim women’s groups, women’s Action Forum, then there’s one called WAR, it’s Women Against Rape. There’s a lot of concern in the country. It’s not just the government banging a law on our heads. It’s being discussed.
Where will it lead us to? How will we find a solution to this? We’re right now in the process, a lot of discussion. And you got to remember, we have a lot of extremist groups now in Pakistan. Now, you have heard about the Taliban in our neighboring country, and we are close neighbors. It’s something like Canada and the United States, with a more than 1000-kilometer border, of rugged mountains that are not easy to control.
Therefore, we have a lot of Afghan refugees in Pakistan. When the Russians invaded Afghanistan in 79, or 80, the official figure the UNHCR was that there were 3 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan. Some have returned in the meantime, but many have put down roots and they can manage. We also have the Pakistani Taliban. It’s a banned outfit, but they are there. And these people can be violent. They’re ready to kill and they’re ready to be killed. Because they believe that they’re doing the will of God, Allah.
And they rule through fear.
Yes, exactly. And there are a few other groups like this, which are difficult for the government to control. But you have to remember, don’t take Islam as a one block. And that Christians too, centuries ago, in Europe, killed one another on the basis of religion, which is why many today reject religion, saying it’s the cause of all the wars in the world. And they were brutal killings, or killing the Jews.
There are different brands of Islam, there are different schools of thought. Pakistan is majority Sunni, but within the majority Sunni Islam, we also have the more mystical trend of Islam called Sufism, who believe God is the Creator God, but God has created all of us. And their stress is humanity reaching God, not keeping some of the strict doctrines. And then you get the more rigid form of Islam as it is found in Saudi Arabia. Where they say women should stay at home or you come to Pakistan you find everything.
When the Taliban first came into power in Afghanistan, more than 20 years ago, they influenced the northwestern of Pakistan, blowing up schools because girls are not allowed to have an education. You remember the story of Malala? An assassin was sent to finish her off, because they couldn’t accept that a girl was challenging them. And they sent someone to shut her up. If she had died – she was shot in the head mind you – she would have been just one more statistic of a schoolgirl killed on the way to school.
Instead, she became a voice for millions of girls all over the world, not just in Pakistan.
But her story shows you what their extreme way of thinking is: No education for girls, they are not allowed to leave the house, and if they do, it must be in the company of a man and covered. There’s to be no music, no dancing. It’s a very different kind of Islam the one they propose than the one we have in most of Pakistan, where we’ve had a woman Prime Minister and we have a lot of women parliamentarians, in the police force and in the air force.
When I was still acting bishop, we had a very, very typical case of a girl who just disappeared, and she was studying in grade seven, she was about 14 years old. And two years later somebody just came and gave her parents a lot of papers, showing that she had gone in her own free will, that she had become a Muslim and she was now married.
And her parents are poor people who didn’t know the legal system, how to hire a lawyer, so they came to us. We took the case – the bishops conference has a justice and peace commission – and it became big news, because we made sure that it reached the media. And a wide variety of groups came and helped us, with the Women’s Action Forum – all Muslims – saying that they too wanted to help because this is not a Church problem but one of society. And we did manage to get a fair trial. But then the girl, when the judge ruled that the marriage was not valid, said she was afraid to go back home because she feared her father would beat her. The court sent her to a shelter home for women with such problems, where she still is.