Posted by: Titus Presler | June 28, 2015

Support for Pakistan’s Christians prominent at Episcopal General Convention

Support for the Christians of Pakistan has become prominent on the agenda of the 2015 General Convention of the Episcopal Church, currently meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Under the general theme of expressing solidarity with the Church of Pakistan, Resolution D035, “Support Christians in Pakistan,” calls on members of the Episcopal Church to learn about the Church of Pakistan (CoP) and the oppression of religious minorities in that country, initiate partnerships with CoP, and undertake “visits to provide active engagement and support for the persecuted Church.”

The resolution calls on the Government of Pakistan to ensure the protection of religious minorities and to fulfill its international obligations, with specific attention to the abduction and forced conversions of women to Islam.

In extended testimony before the Legislative Committee on World Mission on Friday, June 26, Bishop Samuel Azariah, moderator and primate of the Church of Pakistan, cited details of the pressure experienced by Christians in Pakistan. He noted the fear in which Christians live, including “our friend from the Episcopal Church,” referring to Titus Presler, principal-in-exile of Edwardes College in Peshawar.

“What is the way forward?” asked Bp. Azariah. He suggested strengthening inter-church partnerships, initiating visits from people of ECUSA, and advocating for Christians in Pakistan, especially from the Episcopal Church’s Office of Governmental Relations in Washington. He noted CoP’s current interfaith initiatives with Muslims are “very necessary for our survival,” even though ‘the majority of our people think, ‘Why should we talk with people who are oppressing us?’’’  (Click here for Episcopal News Service story and video of Bp. Azariah’s remarks.)

Following the testimony of Bp. Azariah and his wife Khushnu, a priest of the Diocese of Los Angeles, I testified in favor of the resolution and cited the witness of a Christian who was martyred in the suicide bombings at All Saint’s Church in Peshawar in September 2013. I noted that British Anglican mission societies initiated Anglican presence in both Africa and Asia and that Episcopalians tend to be much less engaged with Asian churches than with African churches. Bp. Azariah commented that relations between CoP and ECUSA are currently loose and that he would like to see them strengthened.  “We need to get more serious about our church relationship,” he said.

D035 was submitted by the Very Rev. Melissa McCarthy of California, who noted that her interest in the state of Pakistan’s Christians began after the massacre of 16 Christians in Bahawalpur in October 2001.  The resolution will be acted on by convention in the coming days.

The Church of Pakistan was established 1970 from the ecumenical union of Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists and Presbyterians – hence the addition of “(United)” sometimes after its name.  Like the other united churches of south Asia (South India, North India, Bangladesh, it is a full member of the Anglican Communion.

In a related observance, on Sunday, June 28, the House of Deputies observed a short period of standing in silence to commemorate Christians who have been murdered in religious violence in the Middle East.  The recognition was suggested by Kate Moorehead, dean of St. John’s Cathedral in Jacksonville in the Diocese of Florida.  She mentioned incidents of persecution of Christians in Egypt.

* * *

Anglican Communions News Service also published a story on Bp. Azariah’s testimony.  Oddly, the article identifies Bp. Azariah only as bishop of Raiwind, one of the eight dioceses of the Church of Pakistan.  He is indeed bishop of Raiwind, but he was invited to be the General Convention’s guest because he is the church’s moderator, a position comparable to that of presiding bishop.  The title is a nod to the Presbyterian element in the united churches of south Asia, whose movement toward church union began with the 1919 Tranquebar meeting convened by Bp. Vedanayagam Azariah, the first indigenous Anglican Indian bishop, so that today the presiding bishops of the churches of South India, North India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh are all termed moderators.  Today’s Bp. Samuel Azariah of the Church of Pakistan is a member of the Primates Meeting of the Anglican Communion.

Text of Resolution D035 (as of 28 June): Support Christians in Pakistan

Resolved, the House of Deputies concurring, that the 78th General Convention of The Episcopal Church express continued solidarity with the Church of Pakistan (United) in this time of oppression of religious minorities in their country; and be it further
Resolved, that the 78th General Convention of The Episcopal Church call upon the congregations and members of The Episcopal Church to learn about the realities of the Church in Pakistan and the oppression of religious minorities in that country, and to pray purposely and specifically for the Church of Pakistan (United); and be it further

Resolved, that the 78th General Convention of The Episcopal Church call upon the congregations and dioceses of The Episcopal Church to enter into direct partnerships with the Church of Pakistan (United) including visits to provide active engagement and support for the persecuted Church; and be it further

Resolved, that that the 78th General Convention of The Episcopal Church call upon the Government of Pakistan to ensure adequate protections for all religious minorities in Pakistan; that it take immediate action to discharge its international human rights obligations, specifically with respect to the prevention of the abduction, forced conversion to Islam, and forced marriage of young women from minority religious communities; and that it bring to justice those responsible for human rights violations; and be it further

Resolved, that the 78th General Convention of The Episcopal Church direct the Global Relations Office of the Episcopal Church, including the United Nations special consultative status granted to it in 2014, and other offices and agencies of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society to utilize all measures at their disposal to advocate for the protection of religious, gender, and other minorities with the Government of Pakistan and international agencies; and be it further

Resolved, that the 78th General Convention of The Episcopal Church direct the Standing Commission on Anglican and International Peace with Justice Concerns (or other commission, committee or task-group as assigned by Executive Council) to report to the Executive Council of The Episcopal Church, no later than December 31, 2016, on the work of the Episcopal Church in these undertakings with respect to the Church of Pakistan, including the status of the actions contemplated by this and previous resolutions of General Convention pertaining to the plight of the Church of Pakistan, with such report being shared with the Church of Pakistan.

Explanation

Pakistan currently faces a serious crisis of the human rights of religious minorities, primarily due the rise of religious Islamic extremism within certain important segments of the nation’s socio-political context. In contrast to how Christians and Muslims have lived in harmony in many other parts of the world, Islamic extremism has become a major source of discrimination, victimization and persecution of Pakistani religious minorities.

Since the penal code of the country was amended in 1986, religious minorities in Pakistan have been living in fear and insecurity. Through misuse of the country’s Blasphemy Law, false cases have brought against religious minorities, and Christians in particular, who have become targets of harassment and persecution. The Blasphemy Law, while purporting to protect Islam and the religious sensitivities of the Muslim majority, is vaguely formulated and arbitrarily enforced by the police and judiciary in a way amounting to discriminatory behaviors and attitudes. Many falsely accused victims of the Law seek asylum and a safe haven overseas, whilst others remain and live in hiding.

Through the misuse of the Law there has been killing, destruction of property and discrimination, pre-dominantly in the province of Punjab and Sindh. In one recent horrifying example, in November 2014, a young married couple was burnt alive in the village of Kot Radha Kishan, near Raiwind. The perpetrators of such discriminatory and violent acts have not been punished. Moreover, as extremism has increased, religious institutions, worship places and gatherings of religious minorities, especially of Christians, have also been under attack. A recent suicide attack on two Churches in Youhannabad, Lahore, caused the death of over 30 people.

Tragically, there is also a significant gender dimension to this abuse. Today, a significant number of young women of religious minorities, especially Hindus and Christians who live in the Punjab, Sindh and Baluchistan provinces, face violence, including sexual assault, rape and threats of being kidnapped. Many Pakistani communities live in a state of fear and terror due to the rising incidence of abduction of young girls and their forced conversion to Islam. These young girls mostly come from poor families and are not able to defend themselves. As a result, it often falls to the Church of Pakistan to provide protection and to marshal legal resources for these voiceless and poor victims.

In sum, the human rights of Christian and other religious minorities in Pakistan are being threatened in novel and increasingly serious ways. Through the within Resolution, The Episcopal Church can and should rearticulate its commitment to the Church of Pakistan as it seeks to minister to, and walk in solidarity with, those suffering such significant human rights violations.

 

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