Pope Benedict will be remembered as a voice for Pakistani Christians. By Nasir Saeed


On my way to work every morning I listen to Asian radio. The presenter, Ravi Sharma, has a good sense of humour but aside from the jokes and the music, he also sheds light on the significant events of the day. No doubt on 11 February 2014 he will remind listeners that a year has passed since Pope Benedict XVI resigned – an act so singular that it has not been done in 600 years.
My intention is not to comment on the resignation, but to share something of the feelings of Pakistani Christians of all denominations following this announcement. Of course it was unexpected and they were saddened by the news. The Pope won the hearts and souls of Pakistan’s Christians when he called for the release of Asia Bibi, a Christian mother sentenced to death for blasphemy.
His call was greeted with criticism from many Islamists, who saw it as unnecessary external interference in the affairs of Pakistan. The Pope would certainly have anticipated a negative reaction from certain sections of the world’s Muslims, but nonetheless spoke boldly for Mrs Bibi’s “full freedom”.
"I pray for those who are in similar situations that their human dignity and their fundamental rights be fully respected," he said.
Not only were these words of great comfort to Pakistani Christians, they raised awareness of the suffering at an international level. Regardless of how people feel about the church – Catholic or otherwise - the Pope still has a clout that commands the world’s attention in a way that no other church leader does.
The Pope’s statement in response to Bibi reaffirmed the right Christians should have to practise their faith and the responsibility of governments to ensure religious freedom is protected. How greatly his words stirred in the hearts of Pakistan’s worn-down Christians and inspired them once again to continue their struggle for equality.
His genuine sympathy and concern was apparent again when Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti was murdered because of his vocal defence of religious freedom. In his annual address to diplomats last year, the Pope mentioned Bhatti’s tragic death and reminded his listeners that this was no isolated incident.
“In many countries, Christians are deprived of fundamental rights and sidelined from public life; in other countries they endure violent attacks against their churches and homes,” he said at the time.
Whether they want to be or not, Christians everywhere are seen as allies of the western world simply because of their faith. For that reason, they expect strong Christian voices from these nations to speak out on their behalf about the injustices they are experiencing. In this respect, thePope’s voice was undoubtedly the strongest and will be missed greatly by the Pakistani Christians as they endure ever increasing levels of persecution.
Religious intolerance and religiously motivated crimes against Christians occur on a daily basis in Pakistan and yet the government hardly pays attention unless it has made international headlines, as we saw with Rimsah Masih. However, not everyone is as lucky as her to receive the game-changing boost of international attention. There are many like Younis Masih, who has spent the last eight years in prison after being sentenced to death for blasphemy. Living as Christians in Pakistan is not easy but it gives them hope beyond words when those in positions of influence raise their voices against persecution. May the next Pope continue the legacy of his predecessor?

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