Defend Religious Freedom, Encourage Dialogue and Tolerance

VATICAN CITY, MAY 19, 2001 (VIS) - The Pope today received the bishops of Pakistan as they ended their "ad limina" visit, and told them that such visits are "a significant and enriching moment for the Successor of Peter" who can "spend time in prayer and fraternal reflection regarding (the bishops') joys and hopes, their griefs and sorrows."

Bishops, he said, must be concerned not only about their own dioceses but also "about the Church at the national and universal levels." He suggested that the bishops in Pakistan "strengthen cooperation at the level of your episcopal conference," and said that "in particular a permanent secretariat and a more stable arrangement for the conference's meeting would perhaps be helpful."

The Holy Father thanked the priests of Pakistan for their ministry, noting that "the Christian community is a small flock living in the midst of a large Muslim majority." He said: "I know the often difficult circumstances of their ministry. ... I rejoice that the number of vocations continues to rise in Pakistan."

"The laity too," the Pope continued, "should be encouraged to play a fuller and more visible part in the Church's mission." He expressed his gratitude to the religious and lay catechists for their dedication and "encouraged them to make full use of the Catechism of the Catholic Church."

"We should not overlook the fact," affirmed John Paul II, "that faith is transmitted in the first place in the home. For this reason the family, ... the domestic Church, ... must be one of the priorities of your pastoral planning," as must be "the pastoral care of young people." He told the bishops to "encourage and support young people, to ensure that they are mature enough, humanly and spiritually to assume an active role in the Church and in society."

"Catholic schools," he noted, "are widely recognized in Pakistan for the high quality of their teaching and for the human values they inculcate. Since students of all religious traditions attend these schools, their part in promoting a climate of dialogue and tolerance cannot be underestimated and constitutes a serious challenge for the Catholic community."

Turning to the subject of interreligious dialogue, the Pope called it "an essential feature of (the bishops') pastoral mission. ... Dialogue does not imply abandonment of one's own principles, nor should it lead to a false irenicism. Rather, in fidelity to our own religious traditions and convictions, we must be open to understanding those of the followers of other religions in a spirit of humility and frankness."

"Pakistani culture recognizes and defends the place of God in public life. This fact should make it possible for the followers of various religions to work together in order to defend the inestimable dignity of every man and woman from conception to natural death and to build a society in which the inalienable rights of all are respected and protected, especially the right to life." Yet, the Pope noted, "it is unfortunately still the case that many of your people are enduring hardships for their fidelity to Christ. They are sometimes regarded with suspicion and feel that they are not treated as full citizens of their own country, especially in the face of laws which do not sufficiently respect the religious freedom of minorities."

In concluding comments, the Holy Father lauded the courage of the Pakistani bishops in defending religious freedom and he encouraged their "efforts to ensure that a spirit of mutual tolerance and respect prevails."