At only 59, Archbishop Sebastian Shaw of Lahore, Pakistan, is one of the younger prelates in the world to head a major archdiocese. It’s probably just as well, because it’s hard to imagine many bishops with a tougher gig.
Christians in Pakistan represent around two percent of an overwhelmingly Muslim population of around 200 million, which for the last thirty years has been gripped by a rising tide of extremism and violence.
Last Easter, Shaw found himself visiting victims of a bomb blast in a Lahore park frequented by Christians that left 75 people dead and over 340 injured. This year on Good Friday, Pakistani security officials said they narrowly averted another “major incident.”
The country’s Christians are also disproportionately poor, often members of ethnic and linguistic minorities as well as their religious minority status, meaning they’re doubly or triply at risk for exploitation and abuse.
Shaw is currently in the United States, on a trip sponsored by the Catholic relief organization Aid to the Church in Need, to raise awareness about the challenges facing Christians in Pakistan. He spoke to Crux on Tuesday from New York.
Among other things, Shaw said:
- Despite the tensions and threats, he believes inter-religious dialogue is the only way to cope with extremism.
- Pakistani Christians are hoping the country’s Supreme Court will release Asia Bibi, an illiterate Catholic mother in Punjab who was arrested under the country’s notorious blasphemy law in 2009 and sentenced to death in 2010. Last week, Bibi passed another Easter celebration behind bars, in the face of repeated procedural delays in her appeal.
- The bishops of Pakistan hope to see Shahbaz Bhatti, a devout Catholic and former government minister gunned down for his human rights advocacy in 2011, declared a “martyr,” though Shaw concedes the cause could be “politicized.”
- The bishops are also pursuing sainthood for Akash Bashir, a 20-year-old Catholic working security at St. John’s Church in Lahore on March 15, 2015, when a suicide bomber approached. Bashir prevented him from coming in, so when the bomb exploded, the death toll of about 20 people was much lower than it otherwise would have been. Shaw called his sacrifice “a lesson not only in being willing to risk one’s life, but in what the purpose of being really is.”
- Despite the challenges, Shaw said that the church in Pakistan has a “mission” based on its suffering “to work so that people all over the world may be recognized and appreciated for the talents God has given them … not only based on religion.”
The following are excerpts from that interview.
Crux: What’s the situation today facing Christians in Pakistan?
Shaw: Before and after the partition of Pakistan, Christians played a very vital role for the safety, security and fortification of Pakistan through its institutions, such as its schools, its health care facilities, and its social service agencies. Christians and Muslims lived side by side, taking part together in daily activities and also weddings and so on.
In the 1980s, however, one of the army chiefs, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, was president and he introduced many Islamic laws. People in society were categorized according to religion. Since that time, we’ve faced many problems … the blasphemy law was introduced, and others.
Right after 9/11, many people started thinking that we Christians in Pakistan are allies to America or Europe. Our churches were attacked and some other institutions were attacked. Many people have been victimized for being Christians, and many Christians have been accused of being blasphemers.
It’s a painful situation, but we started interreligious dialogue. We come together, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, all people, in order to reflect on the situation in Pakistan, the fear but also the hope. Through our dialogues, we hope we can overcome this present situation. That’s what we’re working for.
The situation is tense, but at the same time, what did Jesus tell us? He gave us the New Commandment, ‘Love one another.’ It’s hard, but we are people of hope.
You mentioned the blasphemy law. Its most famous victim right now is Asia Bibi, who was arrested in 2009, sentenced to death in 2010, and remains behind bars. What’s the latest update on her case?
As you know, Asia Bibi is still in prison awaiting her release. This is what we hope and pray, that she will get justice. We hope that one day she will come out of prison. Presently I can’t say anything else … I never met her, although sometimes I’ve met her husband. His name is Ashiq. In this way, we have some hope.
You’re awaiting a ruling from Pakistan’s Supreme Court, correct?
Yes, her case is before the Supreme Court. Hopefully, through the Supreme Court, she will get justice.
Pope Francis is visiting a shrine for contemporary martyrs on Rome’s Tiber Island this Saturday. Pakistan has more than its fair share of new martyrs, including Shahbaz Bahtti. What’s the status of his sainthood cause?
I knew Shahbaz Bhatti very well. Many times, he visited me in Lahore, or I visited him in Islamabad in his parliamentary office … It’s true, he was gunned down, assassinated, for talking about human rights and the rights of all people who live in Pakistan, including Asia Bibi. We are hoping, the bishops in Pakistan, that someday he will be declared a ‘martyr.’
That’s our hope, and we’re working on it, because his being declared a ‘martyr’ would give strength to many people working for human rights, for the rights of all people, including people of other faiths. I feel this is our mission, to work so that people all over the world may be recognized and appreciated for the talents God has given them … not only based on religion.
Is there any progress to report on Bhatti’s sainthood cause?
Bhatti is from my neighboring diocese, and I don’t know what the level of investigation is now.
Some Catholics in Pakistan worry that because Bhatti was a member of the opposition party to the one presently in power, pressing forward might cause political difficulties. Is that something you worry about?
Yes, it can. I also feel that if the push is too strong, it might cause difficulties for the future, because this is a religious matter but it could become politicized. For that reason, I think it’s better to move forward in a low-key fashion.
Let’s talk about another Pakistani martyr, Akash Bashir. What’s the thinking about sainthood for him?
Actually, Akash Bashir is from my diocese, and St. John’s Church is also there. There were bombings in the Youhanabad neighborhood of the city at St. John’s and also an Anglican church, Christ’s Church. I immediately went to the site, and people were very, very emotional and also confused.
I learned that Akash knew what was going to happen to him, because he knew this was a suicide bomber. He acted with great courage. He was a member of our Bible Study group. He had volunteered for security, and he ran toward the bomber and put him down, not letting him go into the church. At that time, there were 1,400 or 1,500 people inside.
He was a young boy, and he sacrificed his life, he laid down his life, to save the lives of many people. We always salute his faith and courage, believing the mission God gave him was to save other people. We put a small monument in front of the church in his memory, and we wrote on it that Akash Bashir is a martyr. He is a martyr, because he gave his life knowing that it was a suicide bomber.
I’ve visited his family many times. I was amazed by the courage of his father, who told me that even if his second son too were to give his life like this, he would not regret it. It’s a lesson not only in being willing to risk one’s life, but in what the purpose of being really is.
By the way, this is all based on our catechism, but he was a member of our catechism group and he was also sometimes an altar boy. We’re very happy that the Catholic catechism we’ve given has become part of the daily life of our people, which is a good sign.
At the same time, we always say that we have to live in peace, so that through us, peace will prevail.
Normally to begin a sainthood process you have to wait five years, which means you couldn’t start the cause for Akash Bashir until 2020. Are you hoping you can accelerate that?
Yes, we want to do that. Recently I brought this point to our Catholic bishops’ conference in Pakistan. Just two or three weeks ago, I visited the family. Because Akash Bashir is from Lahore, we can begin the cause here. An assignment has been given to the parish priest to write a brief history of his life, so that we can get underway.
Probably the single event more than any other that’s scarred Christians in Pakistan was the Easter Sunday bombing last year at a park in Lahore where many Christians were celebrating the holiday. Immediately afterwards, you were in the hospitals and consoling the victims and their families … what was that experience like?
I can tell you that last year, we were very happy that we celebrated Easter in a very festive environment and mood. It was in the evening, about 6:35 p.m., when I heard news of this bomb blast in Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park, which is just about two miles from our cathedral. It was a big shock. That night, I phoned here and there to try to find out about the situation. It was a big commotion, and there was great confusion.
People were arriving at the hospitals. I wanted to go but was told not to, because there are a lot of security matters. The following day, early in the morning, I went to the hospitals. I was in my bishop’s dress, with the soutane and the cross and so on.
It was a general hospital and also Sheikh Zayed hospital in Lahore, and the medical superintendent thought I was there only to see Christians. He asked me if I had a list of people I wanted to see. I said, ‘No, I don’t have a list, and I don’t need one. I came here to console all victims, whether they’re Christian or Muslim, because for me all victims are equal.’ He was very happy. Two senior nurses took me around to visit all patients, regardless of religion or faith.
I tell you, it was so difficult to console people. For example, there was a lady who lost, I think, her son and also her brother, and had one or two other children still in the hospital. I met a Muslim family that had lost, I think, four family members. It was very difficult to know what to say.
But still, my presence there, along with some sisters and brothers, was enough. I blessed them, put my hand on their heads, Christian and Muslim alike regardless of creed. They were really very happy, and we gave them courage to become a beacon of light.
One really hard moment came the next day when we had the funeral of two sisters – biological sisters, not nuns – who were killed in the blast. One was 19 years old, the other 17. That was very, very difficult for us, to conduct the funeral and at the same time to give hope to the family, the father and mother and sisters and brothers. I tell you, we still don’t know how God gave us the courage to do that, to just say some consoling words.
The story isn’t over, because we didn’t leave people alone, whether they’re Christian or Muslim. Through Caritas in Lahore, we arranged through the medical doctors in the hospitals to offer trauma therapy to victims. We arranged a therapist, a Muslim lady, who visited to help them come out of their trauma. Also, once people were able to leave the hospital and go back to their homes, some still needed medical help. With the help of some other people, we arranged medicines for them so they’re not deprived of on-time care. We did that for a couple of months.
Later, we also realized that some people had become totally jobless, with no earned wages. In some cases, the wage-earner in the family, such as the father, husband or brother, had died. We arranged to get them some small rickshaws as a means of income, so they didn’t become dependents or beggars. It was a big struggle, and we’re still doing it to help.
Your circumstances are incredibly tough. Where does your hope come from?
(Laughs.) I’m trying not to laugh, but I am smiling. Look, we have difficulties to give our people hope. But still, I believe that Christ after his resurrection gave a message of peace to his disciples who were totally frustrated. So, that’s the mission we should continue.