Fr. Emmanuel Asi, President of the Lahore Biblical Theological Institute and a member of the directive committee of the Theological Institute for Laity in Pakistan, as well as expert in interreligious dialogue, was recently interviewed by the press office of the national headquarters of the Pontifical Mission Societies (also known as “Missio”) of Germany based in Munich (Bavaria). We re-publish his interview below.
The evaluation made by the humanitarian aid organizations is correct. Nearly 14 million people have been affected by the flooding. Nearly all the all dams in the country have overflowed. Now the waters have reached the center of Pakistan with its large plains, where in contrast to the mountainous north, the water drains very slowly. The people most at risk are mainly women and children and the government seems unable to resolve the situation. Mosques and churches are open to shelter the victims of the floods and in contrast, hardly any state building has opened its doors to the victims. This is perhaps because the authorities fear that doing so would mean being able to ensure a long supply of medicines and food and they know that they would be unable to do so.
The humanitarian aid organizations speak of a catastrophe of worse consequences than the tsunami. How do you see the situation?
According to the press, in the north of the country the Taliban are trying to provide aid, exerting pressure on the government and asking it not to accept foreign aid. Is there a threat of Islamisation of the country?
The Taliban are a small but influential group that controls the mountains in the northeast of the country. In that region, in the past as well, tribal laws ruled the land and not the Constitution of Pakistan. Most Muslims do not have a good opinion of the Taliban. Their idea of an Islam with very rigid precepts and prohibitions appears too archaic to them.
What can the Church do to alleviate suffering?
We must act with great focus and speed. Winter begins in mid-October. If the cold arrives and people do not have housing, warm clothes, etc., the situation can only worsen. Aid should be organized in collaboration with local organizations. Small local projects are often more efficient than large programs often exceeding logistical capacities of the government. There are, for example, nuns who help people in the mountains in the north and house the victims in their church. On the phone, one of the nuns told me that the water in her office reached her knees. They need immediate help!
What are your plans?
We want to create small teams composed of medical personnel and priests that would especially care for women and children. In collaboration with Missio, we would like to provide school uniforms and educational materials for children. Parents who have lost everything cannot afford these expenses and we want to keep the children from missing out on the upcoming school years. The aid will be needed even after the flood, when the traumatized people need to be accompanied and when you can start with the reconstruction.
On August 11, Pakistan celebrates Religious Minorities Day. What is the situation of Christians and other religious minorities?
97% of Pakistanis are Muslims. Christians, with 1.8%, are – along with Hindus, Sikhs, and Bahai – the largest minority. Although the Constitution guarantees religious freedom, religious minorities are discriminated against. When they come, they are the last to receive government aid in disasters. They are often regarded as second-class citizens. As a child, for example, I could not touch the well of our school because I was Christian.
What is the current situation?
Even today, few Muslims go to the stores or restaurants operated or frequented by people of other faiths. In the courts, the testimony of a Muslim is worth the testimony of two followers of other religions.
Every now and then Christians are killed in Pakistan. What are the reasons for such violence?
Normally, Muslims and Christians live together peacefully. But for Christian minorities and those of other religions, the situation is still tense. You never know what will happen next. Pakistani laws even call for the death penalty for blasphemy and unfortunately, the laws against blasphemy are often used as an alibi for discriminatory acts.
What are the reasons for such discrimination?
They are often the result of private disputes or envy against Christians. Muslims can denounce Christians in front of religious leaders in their mosques that have the power to mobilize the faithful. You can get to the point of angry masses burning the entire village of a Christian thus accused. Oftentimes, the conflict between a Muslim and a Christian ends with the death of an innocent.