MUMBAI, India – Bishops in Pakistan have elected a new president of their conference in a meeting that tackled a number of issues facing the country, including corruption and the state of the educational system.

The Bishop of Faisalabad, Joseph Arshad, will lead the bishops’ conference after a vote during their annual plenary meeting, which took place November 9-10 in Lahore.

There are about 2.5 million Christians in the Muslim-majority country, making up less than two percent of the population. Of these, around half are Catholics.

“This is a call to service with lots of responsibilities. There is a work to be done, for example, reorganizing the episcopal conference, and also we have to lead the Church of Pakistan especially in the fields of education – both secular and religious education,” Arshad told Crux.

Arshad said the bishops are also looking at the formation of priests and catechists, calling them “the main agents of evangelization.”

“Seminary formation is vital, and we are also focusing on better training for candidates in the seminaries,” he said.

“Our catechists serve in far flung remote areas, and their formation is essential. Through their evangelization, they make Christ known, and they in turn work for the spiritual growth and strengthen the faith of our people.”

According to a statement released after the meeting, the bishops said the Church is concerned about the levels of corruption in the country.

“We have to be honest in our dealings and be free from all stains of corruption. This is a big challenge to us and to the whole of society,” the statement said.

The bishops called for the nation to confess its failures and ask for pardon, admitting this requires “great courage,” but added, “If we can begin cleansing ourselves the future of the country will be bright.”

The bishops’ meeting was their final annual plenary before Pakistan holds general elections in September 2018, and the bishops said the vote should be transparent and strengthen the democratic process.

“We cannot hope for a stable government if the elections are not free and fair. The more unjust the elections the bigger will be our problems in the future. We have to begin the process by having free and fair elections,” the bishops’ statement reads.

The bishops also took the opportunity to call upon all political parties to address and include issues that concern the problems and difficulties of the minorities in Pakistan, “in order to build a solid and inclusive democracy.”

Speaking about education – which they called “the basic right of every human being” – the bishops said it was the goal of the Catholic Church in Pakistan to offer an affordable, quality educational system.

The Pakistani Church runs over 500 schools, along with several institutions of higher education.

“However, it is very unfortunate to say that the educational system in Pakistan is suffering. There are plenty of weaknesses in the educational system at present which require special attention for improvement,” the bishops said.

They also appealed for the government to introduce reforms which “can create an atmosphere of acceptance, religious harmony and peaceful co-existence in Pakistan,” alluding to the discrimination religious minorities can face in state schools.

Arshad told Crux the bishops are particularly concerned with the faith formation of young people, and said Christian youth “must contribute in a professional manner to the building up of Pakistani society.”