ACN News, Friday, 4th January 2007 – PAKISTAN
(With picture of Bishop Joseph Coutts)
United in grief
Bishop speaks of renewed inter-faith hopes after Benazir Bhutto’s death
By John Pontifex
A PAKISTAN Bishop has spoken of how Christians and Muslims have come together in grief in the wake of Benazir Bhutto’s killing, prompting renewed hopes for a Church increasingly threatened by religious intolerance.
Bishop Joseph Coutts described “unprecedented” levels of co-operation between the two religious groups, with joint prayer services honouring Mrs Bhutto taking place across his diocese of Faisalabad, in east Pakistan’s Punjab Province.
As a minority of barely three percent in a country increasingly dominated by extremist Muslims, Christians more than ever depend on good relations with their neighbours, especially during a period of worsening tension expected in the run-up to the elections, which were yesterday (2nd January) announced for February 18.
Speaking from Faisalabad in an interview with the charity Aid to the Church in Need, the bishop stressed the people’s profound shock following the assassination of the leader of the Pakistan People’s Party, which he said had cut across the religious divide.
Bishop Coutts said: “People really felt Benazir Bhutto’s loss as a personal tragedy; the fact of her being a woman so brutally murdered. It created a lot of sympathy which was personal rather than to do with politics.”
He spoke of how at a 1,300-bed government hospital in Faisalabad, Christian and Muslim staff led prayers for Mrs Bhutto, an event repeated in various public places across the region’s cities of Toba Tek Singh and Gojra.
The bishop said the joint initiatives had greatly consoled Christians who, he said, warmed to Mrs Bhutto’s personal style and her much-publicised concern for the disadvantaged in society.
Speaking almost a week after her death, on 27th December, he said that in the Catholic Punjabi shrine of Khushpur, near Faisalabad, Christians had requested Masses to be said for Mrs Bhutto.
Bishop Coutts, who in the past has received death threats, made his comments after the Pakistan Catholic Bishops’ Conference National Justice and Peace Commission (NJPC) responded to Mrs Bhutto’s assassination by calling for calm and demanding an improved security system.
In a statement, NJPC chairman Archbishop Lawrence Saldanha of Lahore and executive secretary Peter Jacob wrote: “Individuals and institutions assigned to maintain security and peace have to be made accountable for lapses and short-comings. The goal is achievable only through establishing a rule of law.”
Safety concerns are a top priority for the Church, especially after a spate of attacks on Christians and church buildings, prompting Archbishop Saldanha last year to speak out against a dramatic upsurge in violence against Christians.
Aid to the Church in Need provided more than $830,000 in aid for Pakistan in 2006, helping with formation of clergy, sisters, church-building, priests’ living costs (Mass offerings), and Bibles and other catechetical materials.
Directly under the Holy See, Aid to the Church in Need supports the faithful wherever they are persecuted, oppressed or in pastoral need. ACN is a Catholic charity – helping to bring Christ to the world through prayer, information and action.
Founded in 1947 by Fr Werenfried van Straaten, whom Pope John Paul II named “An Outstanding Apostle of Charity”, the organisation is now at work in about 145 countries throughout the world.
The charity undertakes thousands of projects every year including providing transport for clergy and lay Church workers, construction of church buildings, funding for priests and nuns and help to train seminarians. Since the initiative’s launch in 1979, 45 million Aid to the Church in Need Child’s Bibles have been distributed worldwide.
For more information please contact the Australian office of ACN on (02) 9679-1929. e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or write to Aid to the Church in Need PO Box 6245 Blacktown DC NSW 2148. Web:www.aidtochurch.org