Interview with the Most Rev Azad Marshall, Moderator Bishop of the Church of Pakistan by Chris Sugden for the Church of England Newspaper.

CEN:  What has been the reaction to your speech to the Lahore Bar Association at the end of August ( in response to the burning of bibles, the houses of Christians and churches in Jaranwala while as you claimed ‘the police acted as spectators’?

AM: We are slowly seeing the results. We are demanding a judicial enquiry. The Government has responded that compensation has been provided to rebuild the houses and churches that were destroyed. But compensation is not the issue; it is an easy way out. This is about the violation of the rights of citizens of Pakistan, the trauma of people who had to flee their homes and have been made to feel they are no longer citizens of their own country. We have the right to know why the police were quiet for several hours when their intervention to arrest the perpetrators would have saved so much destruction. The police allowed announcements to be continually broadcast from mosques alleging that Christians had desecrated the pages of the Holy Quran, thus stirring up anger against the Christians. Those responsible must be reprimanded and brought to justice.

We thought that after the previous outrages at Shantinagar in 1997, Gohra and Joseph Colony such incidents would not happen again. But the Government made no significant contribution that would lead to ensure that such acts would not take place again. Therefore we have seen this repetition. If there is no inquiry now, this will happen again.

CEN:  Will you incur significant legal fees in order to call for this inquiry?

AM: Yes, and we will support these costs ourselves. We have a number of friendly lawyers, Christian and Muslim who have offered to represent us ‘pro bono’.

CEN: Is there any connection between this outrage in Jaranwala and the very recent attack by Hamas on Israel?

AM: In countries like Pakistan, there are two main causes of conflict: Kashmir in the Indian Subcontinent and Palestine in the Middle East. These are seen as Muslim causes. Christians are lumped in with westerners and so a legitimate target.

There is another side to this as well. There was a movement of fanatics who desecrated the Islamic sacred text in front of the Pakistan embassies. In Norway, an emigrant from Iraq who was a supposed Christian carried out such an act in front of the Pakistan embassy. An extremist group on Pakistan, known for their hate crimes, vowed to destroy every Bible in Pakistan. So in these recent attacks on Christians, the perpetrators carried the Swedish flag with them, which had a yellow cross incorporated in its design ( prior to the Jaranwala attack). The attackers were trained to burn buildings, they incited the local population, and caused havoc and destruction. They came out of nowhere, knew exactly what they were doing and the book they were looking for: the Bible.

We face discrimination and an unequal playing field in numerous scenarios from education, to healthcare to employment. Its genesis lies in judicial apartheid. The application of the law is different for Christians and Muslims. Section 295a of the Pakistan Penal Code deals with the offence of deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings. Under section 295a, no one has ever been booked for desecration of the Bible.  Section 295b of the PPC deals with the desecration of the Islamic sacred text and carries life imprisonment. But this does not apply to the Bible. There are different rules for entrance to universities. If a Muslim student can memorize the Islamic sacred text, they receive 20 extra marks in their entrance exam which puts them at an advantage to receive merit.  Christians and other minorities cannot obtain certain offices or jobs, generally restricting them from leadership and senior positions ( though there are exceptions).

We are also challenging the forced conversion and marriage of under age girls who belong to religious minorities. The Sharia law allows that if a girl declares she is a Muslim, she can be married ‘under age’ to a Muslim man, and such girls are forced to marry Muslim men (who are often significantly older than the girls).  We are calling for the marriageable age/ age of consent to be fixed across Pakistan at 18. If the girl is under 18, it should be treated as a case of statutory rape or abuse.

CEN:  Have the western feminist movements spoken out on this issue?

AM: We sadly note that the protests of the MeToo and other feminist movements in the West are narrowly limited to the celebrity culture in the West. For their own integrity they should take up this issue as a matter of religious freedom. But the MeToo and other such movements would rather not be associated with religious freedom.

CEN:  Is Pakistan a signatory to the UN Declaration on Human Rights?

AM: Pakistan was one of the first Islamic countries to sign the UNDHR. However there are no checks or questions asked about adherence to this agreement or its grassroots implementation. The UN brings pressure on them to implement it, and they make promises but there is no further action. Recently after the tragedy of Jaranwala, headlines in one newspaper audaciously declared that “Minorities enjoy equal rights in Pakistan”.

CEN: Thank you Bishop. We should certainly remember you and your church in Sunday prayers.