MUMBAI, India – Pakistani Archbishop Joseph Arshad was installed in his new diocese, Islamabad-Rawalpindi on Feb. 10.
The diocese had been vacant since the death of Bishop Rufin Anthony in October 2016. Arshad had previously served as Bishop of Faisalabad. When he was transferred to his new diocese, Pope Francis gave him the personal title “Archbishop.”
“This is an honor, and support and encouragement to the Church of Pakistan,” Arshad told Crux at the time of his appointment. “Islamabad-Rawalpindi is the capital city of Pakistan, and we are grateful to the Holy Father for this honor.”
The diocese covers an area of over 68,000 square miles and has a population of over 36 million people; but only around 175,000 are Catholic.
“This diocese has a vast area – with not too many priests – and covers a huge territory,” Arshad told Crux. “There are multiple ethnic groups, and we have to work with the people for harmony and peace.”
Because it contains the capital, Arshad’s new diocese is a meeting point of many of the nation’s different ethnic and religious groups.
“The cultural realities too, are different in different areas of the diocese and these too present creative ways for peace, harmony and development,” the bishop said.
Christians in Pakistan represent just two percent of the population – making up around 2.5 million people – in the overwhelmingly Muslim nation, and one gripped for the last thirty years by a rising tide of extremism. They’re also largely poor and members of ethnic and linguistic minorities, so they’re doubly or triply at risk.
Christians and other minorities are also at risk because under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, anyone accused of insulting Islam can be sentenced to death. No death sentence has been carried out, but several people accused of blasphemy have been killed by mobs.
“On a national level, there are the problems of discrimination and blasphemy laws, and we are trying to confront the challenges and work for peace, harmony, and justice in Pakistan,” Arshad said. “Pakistan needs peace, and the political and religious leaders must work together to combat terrorism and bring peace and harmony in Pakistan society.”
Arshad went to the Pontifical Urban University in Rome, and later spent several years in the Vatican’s diplomatic corps. He returned to Pakistan when Pope Francis appointed him Bishop of Faisalabad.
While still at Faisalabad, Arshad was elected president of Pakistan’s bishops’ conference during their annual plenary meeting, which took place November 9-10, 2017, in Lahore.
During the meeting, the bishops issued a statement calling 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.”