October issue 2017

By | Cover Story | Published 7 years ago

Maryam Nawaz visits the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Lahore.

Just two weeks before the NA-120 by-election in Lahore, Nawaz Sharif’s daughter and apparent political heir, Maryam Nawaz, visited the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Lahore. The PML-N leader entered the Roman Catholic Church respectfully, barefooted with head covered, on the eve of September 1. She was welcomed by  Archbishop Sebastian Francis Shaw, O.F.M. of Lahore; Church of Pakistan’s Bishop Azad Marshall of Raiwind; Federal Minister for Statistics Senator Kamran Michael, and Punjab’s Provincial Minister for Human Rights, Khalil Tahir Sindhu. Both federal and provincial ministers are Catholic by faith.

According to the church authorities, the purpose of her visit to the Cathedral (a principal church of a diocese) was the prayer held for Kulsoom Nawaz’s speedy recovery, after a surgery in London for lymphoma. Archbishop Shaw called Maryam’s visit to the church a historic day. But Maryam caused a stir when, following the prayer, she launched into a political appeal, asking the congregation to vote for Kulsoom Nawaz in the NA-120 by-election.

Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif stepped down from the prime minister’s post and membership of the National Assembly after the July 29 Supreme Court ruling that declared him dishonest. Therefore, the constituency of NA-120 Lahore was declared empty and the by-election announced. The PML-N chose Kulsoom Nawaz as its candidate, and Maryam spearheaded the election campaign while her mother was undergoing treatment at a London hospital.

The Christian community was troubled by the fact that Maryam and the government functionaries were seated with the bishops, near the altar in front, and not in the congregation, and her speech riled not just the assembled congregation, but many others who saw it on national television. The screens showed the political leader speaking from the pulpit — a hallowed place from where a preacher can be heard by the congregation. Many Christians called it a sacrilegious act.

Before approaching the Catholic Church, the PML-N’s Senator Kamran Michael had requested the Anglican and Presbyterian Churches in Lahore to extend an invitation to Maryam, but they refused to do so. Later, the senator, who has a close relationship with televangelist Pastor Anwar Fazal, convinced the Catholic Church to welcome Maryam to the cathedral situated in NA-120.

The politically loaded speech of the former prime minister’s daughter annoyed the Christian community, and they reacted in a very strong manner. On the one hand, the event sent out a message that the church supported the campaign of a political party. On the other hand, it compromised the sanctity of the church. Therefore, a number of people demanded a public apology from the bishop, while some even wrote letters to the Vatican against the highest religious leader of the Lahore archdiocese.

Responding to the growing criticism, Archbishop Shaw extended an apology on September 3 for allowing Maryam Nawaz to deliver a political speech in church. Through a video message, on behalf of the archbishop, Father Gulzar Francis, Vicar General of the Lahore Archdiocese, apologised to the Christian community and promised that no one would be allowed to use the church’s platform for a political purpose in the future.

Stating his position, the archbishop said that Maryam Nawaz was not meant to give a political speech while in church for the prayer. In an interview with Asia News, the archbishop said, “I wanted to stop her but millions were watching live on their television screens. At one moment, I decided to walk out as a boycott, but then it could have been detrimental for Church relations with authorities.”

This was the second time that Maryam had visited a church to garner the political support of the Christian community. During the election campaign of 2013, she visited a Protestant church in Lahore. However, there was no hue and cry at the time, because the church’s congregation is small, and the event did not get much media attention.

Among 221,786 registered voters, there were 23,797 Christian voters in the National Assembly’s constituency NA-120, Lahore. The Catholics are in a majority, and many of them are sanitary workers.

The Pakistani Catholic church has not engaged directly in party or electoral politics for decades, remaining focused on its religious duties and social work, especially providing education through schools and running development projects across the country. However, there were some voices that argued that the church should help its poor parishioners through direct political engagement.

Father Derek Misquita, a Goan priest, from the Catholic Diocese of Multan, became a member of the national assembly on a reserved seat for minorities during Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government. He served as an MNA from 1975 to 1977. When General Zia-ul-Haq toppled Bhutto’s government, Father Misquita left Pakistan for good. He had tried to acquire government agricultural land for landless Christians, to establish Christian villages in Muzaffargarh district. Those villages are called Derekabad. The Christian community that occupied the government land at the behest of Father Misquita are still struggling to gain legal possession.

Under the separate electorate system introduced by General Zia in the general elections in 1985, some Catholic priests of the Archdiocese of Lahore supported two Catholic candidates; Emmanuel Zafar for the National Assembly and Babu Noor Masih (a Catholic catechist) for the Punjab Assembly. Both won the elections but disappointed the priests who supported them. Therefore, in the 1988 general elections, a Catholic priest from Archdiocese Lahore, Father Rufin Julius, contested, won, and became an MNA. Two Catholic candidates from Faisalabad, Peter John Sahotra and Johnson Michael also contested elections for the National Assembly and the Punjab Assembly minority seats, with the support of some clergy. They won the elections several times with their backing.

The discussion about the church’s role in politics is an ongoing one. Some see the church’s direct engagement in politics as a way of mainstreaming the church. Others, especially religious congregations in the Catholic Church, feel that the church should not support any political party or candidate, but must raise its voice for the poor and challenge human rights violations by the state. They are totally opposed to engagement in electoral politics.

There are those, however, who want to establish a relationship with the authorities for personal gain. Khalil Tahir Sindhu once told a group of journalists in London that when he arranged a meeting of bishops with the authorities, he was surprised to see that some of them were more interested in having their photos taken with political figures, than in raising the issues of the Christian community. However, some clergymen do challenge state policies that are against the basic rights of the common people. They want to strengthen democratic norms and practices without engaging the church in politics.

Peter Jacob, Executive Director, Centre for Social Justice, told Newsline that due to their knowledge of history and the Pakistani socio-political context, a great majority of Christians favour maintaining a safe distance between the Church and politics. They believe that the church should stay out of electoral politics, yet engage vigorously in social action, and raise awareness among the masses on justice and peace issues, which is characteristic of the Church in the Third World, particularly in Asia.

Jacob added, “Based on my experience with Churches for over three decades, I would strongly recommend that while the political authorities would be inclined to approach the church hierarchy, the latter should actively identify and strengthen alternative social, cultural and political forums to avoid such controversies in the future.”

Aftab Alexander Mughal is the editor of the Minority Concern of Pakistan and former National Executive Secretary of the Justice and Peace Commission of Pakistan.