Pakistan Bishops Are Pleased With Muslim-Christian Relations

Catholic bishops in Pakistan see cause for optimism in the relations between Muslims and Christians.

Noting the start of the Muslim month of fasting, Bishop Andrew Francis, head of the episcopal Commission for Interreligious Dialogue, said that this "Ramadan promises much for dialogue and consolidating good relations between Muslims and Christians. I am very happy and optimistic."

"The atmosphere is good," the bishop of Multan told the Fides agency. "Here in Multan there is a spirit of solidarity and closeness and the times of tension and attacks on Christians seem very remote."

He added that the recent 25th anniversary celebrations for John Paul II's pontificate "gathered everyone together, students, religious leaders, civil authorities, women. All Pakistanis appreciate the figure and activity of Pope John Paul II."

Tensions heightened between Shiite and Sunni Muslims after the assassination of Sunni leader Azam Tariq in Islamabad last month.

The Church is engaged in reconciliation on this front. "We are acting as a bridge between the two communities," said Bishop Francis. "I invite both Shiite and Sunni Muslim leaders to meetings focusing on dialogue to help build peaceful coexistence and restore harmony in society."

Confirmation of improved Christian-Muslim relations came also from Archbishop Lawrence Saldanha of Lahore who is president of the bishops' conference.

"Since the September 11 terrorist attack in New York we have seen a resurgence of Muslim fundamentalism which identifies Christians with the West," he said. "The Church in Pakistan has made an effort to show our Muslim brothers and sisters that we are on the side of peace, and we want to help build a modern country, free of terrorism. Thanks also to various interventions by Pope John Paul II, today they are beginning to realize that we Christians want to have good relations."

Archbishop Saldanha continued: "Certainly the presence of a few groups of fundamentalists made it necessary to have security guards in front of the main churches in Lahore. But since last Christmas there have been no more attacks on the Christian community and the situation seems to have improved considerably. Today we have good relations with moderate Muslims who are the large majority in Pakistan."

Pakistan has a population of 150 million; 97% are Muslim, mostly Sunni. Christians constitute 2.5% of the population. Catholic number about 1.2 million.