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Christians must offer light, hope, says Pakistan bishop

5/8/2002 News media contact: Linda Bloom · (646) 369-3759 · New York

NEW YORK (UMNS) - Christians in Pakistan and elsewhere must provide a positive alternative to extremists who advocate violence, according to a prominent bishop there.

"The terrorists are the ambassadors of death and destruction," said Bishop Alexander John Malik of the Diocese of Lahore, Church of Pakistan. "We as the followers of Christ ought to be the ambassadors of light and hope."

Comprising eight dioceses, the current Church of Pakistan is the result of a union in 1970 with Anglicans, Lutherans, United Methodists and Scottish Presbyterians. Malik, who calls himself an "Anglican-plus," leads the oldest diocese, which is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year.

The bishop spoke at a May 7 briefing with the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries about the political pressures that Pakistan has faced since the events of Sept. 11.

Although Pakistan had recognized the Taliban as rulers of Afghanistan, Malik said he agreed with the assessment of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf that only 15 to 20 percent of the country's overwhelmingly Muslim population was composed of extremists.

But Musharraf faced pressure, the bishop said, because of several factors: his cooperation with the United States; the movement of Indian forces to the border; the large number of Afghan refugees streaming into Pakistan; and the still incendiary 50-year conflict with India over Kashmir.

"The church also felt the pressure," he pointed out. "Muslims have a strange idea that all Americans are Christian and all Christians are American."

Such sentiment led to the Oct. 28 attack at St. Dominic Church in Bahawalpur, where 16 Christians were massacred. The assassins apparently wanted to kill an American Catholic priest there, but instead attacked a group from the Church of Pakistan that happened to be holding worship in the Catholic sanctuary, Malik said. At least 40 Muslim religious and political leaders offered condolences after the attack, he added.

A second attack occurred March 17 when grenades were thrown into a service at the International Protestant Church in Islamabad, killing five people and injuring 41.

Christians, however, did not return the violence, and Malik stressed that when extremists act, others should not retaliate in kind. "We have no other option but the option of hope and life and peace," he said.

He warned of not painting all Muslims as terrorists and added that most Muslims in Pakistan are moderates. The extremists are the ones who cannot cope with the modern world and try to bring back the past of Islam rather than look toward the future, the bishop said.

Malik, who received a "Star of Distinction" from the Pakistani government in 2000 in recognition of the church's contributions to health and education, reported that relations between Christians and the current government generally are good. Schools that were nationalized in 1972 are being returned gradually to the churches; a quota has been set to recruit Christian police officers and the Separate Election System, which discriminated against religious minorities by allowing them to vote only for candidates of their own faith, has been abolished.

Christians are continuing to appeal for an end to Pakistan's blasphemy laws, although, as the bishop pointed out, "there are more Muslims in jail under the blasphemy laws at the moment than Christians."

The situation in Afghanistan remains a concern for Pakistan. Malik believes a strong government is needed there, with full backing of the international community. "If you leave Afghans alone, they will start fighting again," he said.

Although emergency relief is needed, the bishop contended that education is the true solution to Afghanistan's problems. He already has approached Pakistan's government about establishing schools in the refugee camps and is considering the eventual possibility of educational work in Kabul, once part of the Diocese of Lahore.

Said the bishop: "I strongly believe that education is an instrument of empowerment."

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