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After 25 years, commission has little to celebrate

Sombre mood prevails throughout body's anniversary

After 25 years, commission has little to celebrate
Stage performances on sufi (mystic) songs at NCJP 25th anniversary reporter, Lahore

October 7, 2011

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The silver jubilee of the National Commission for Justice and Peace has come and gone, but there has been no celebration. In fact, it is by no means certain that there will be any kind of event to mark its 25th anniversary, which actually fell last November.

At a meeting of the commission last week, hosted in Lahore by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, executive secretary Peter Jacob said, “we did not feel like celebrating in November and, given the circumstances this year, we’ve decided to set celebration aside. We meet now to ponder the miseries that plague our society and to revise our strategies.”

About 150 delegates attended the event, including two retired bishops, along with priests, nuns and human rights workers. Given the multiple woes that currently afflict Pakistan, the mood of the meeting was somber. Speakers agreed there is a great deal to be done in these critical times and acknowledged that many NGOs are facing enormous difficulties.

Archbishop Emeritus Lawrence Saldanha of Lahore, commission chairman for the past 10 years, released a statement to coincide with the meeting.

“The last 25 years have witnessed a rising tide of extremism and religious intolerance," it said, "which has given rise to numerous militant groups that are now actively spreading the extremist ideology. This has brought increasing intolerance, discrimination and violence against ethnic and religious minorities.”

“In this highly charged atmosphere of intolerance, the struggle for the rights of the downtrodden has become extremely hazardous. Security has become a big issue.”

The statement also addressed the anti-blasphemy law which “has become the single biggest stumbling block in the way of peace and harmony."

In a clear reference to the murders of Punjab governor Salman Taseer and the Catholic federal minister for minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, who both supported changes to the controversial law, the archbishop said, "even to discuss the possibility of changing this law is considered blasphemy."

However, in both his statement and his personal address to the meeting, he urged the gathering to continue the program of educating communities, encouraging democracy and reporting rights violations.

“We are humbly grateful to God for the privilege of working for justice and peace, which is an integral part of the Gospel message," he said. "We hope our Commission will continue to be a voice of the voiceless for many more years.”

“Our work has become more risky and dangerous because of the rising tide of extremism and intolerance. The blasphemy laws have taken their toll and caused a lot of destruction and death. But in these dark days, our work is a beacon of hope for the marginalized poor.”

Later, all joined the archbishop in singing We Shall Overcome, an inspiring folk song associated with the civil rights movement.

Despite the seriousness of the gathering, there were also some lighter moments. A candle of hope was lit, there were stage performances of music from the Sufi mystics and anniversary souvenirs were presented to rights activists and partner organizations, including UCAN Pakistan.

There was also time to reflect on some of the triumphs and tragedies of the commission’s 25 years.

Bishop John Joseph, the first chairman, spearheaded a successful countrywide protest in 1992, when the government attempted to make people state their religion on applications for a national identity card.

The commission led another national campaign, for the abolition of separate electorates in 2001. The demand was accepted in 2002 and the commission received an international human rights award for its efforts.

However, it suffered an enormous setback when Bishop Joseph shot himself in the head in front of a court in 1998, to protest against a death sentence given to an alleged Christian blasphemer. Currently, the commission has to maintain a low profile after Bhatti was gunned down on March 2.

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