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Christmas is no time for playing politics

Political vote chasers must stop targeting churches

Christmas is no time for playing politics
Silent Thinker, Lahore

December 19, 2012

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Election fever has gripped the nation and churches are no exception. Even the impending Christmas holidays have been used for political purposes.

This week I saw a sign advertizing a Christmas cake-cutting event in front of a Brethren church adjacent to a Christian slum. The advert said the event would include the singing of carols and the distribution of clothes for the poor.

But what drew my attention was the photo of a Muslim federal minister at the top of the advert, along with the faces of Christian pastors.

Interreligious gatherings are not out of the ordinary in the lead-up to Christmas. Politicians of all faiths regularly attend ceremonial Christmas parties that are linked to charitable works.

But in anticipation of the polls, it seems there’s been a shift in these interfaith gatherings towards pure politics.

General elections are due early next year, though no firm date has yet been established. The current National Assembly is to be dissolved on or before March 18.

Under the guise of helping the poor, politicians have attempted to ingratiate themselves with pastors in an effort to convince parishioners to give them their votes. 

“The five years of coalition government have been nothing but hopeless. The parties have become desperate  in their efforts to call people to their processions and have now extended their election campaigns to a focused group, the churchgoers,” said Pastor Patras Pasha of Bethania Church in Lahore. 

“Several politicians have offered me as much as 5,000 rupees (US$51) for 15 minutes of speech after the Mass. One group offered to set up a political office in the church compound and pay its monthly rent,” the pastor added. 

While the mainstream religious groups in Pakistan do not have official political parties, they do have political affiliations.

Several National Assembly members who have siblings or friends in positions of leadership in churches sometimes make appearances at pilgrimages, clergy-led protests or private functions. 

Maintaining healthy relationships with political leaders can benefit the Church in its development efforts and in times of crisis. But these relationships also pose risks.

I remember a story two years ago where a Catholic youth leader offered a candidate in the Punjab provincial assembly hundreds of votes in return for the installation of three air conditioners in his church. Thankfully, the deal never materialized.

“We cannot completely favor a single party,” warned one senior priest. “We cannot risk the downslide of a candidate if he or she loses an election.” 

The Church itself is not immune from backroom politicking. Bishops and priests serving in important locations can form alliances with laypeople in Church offices that can also lead to corruption.

Street churches, on the other hand, are considered an easier forum for gaining political mileage. With no formal hierarchy, these home-based churches are vulnerable to all sorts of mismanagement and influence pedaling.

The targeting of the Church establishment by political factions is a matter of serious concern and has exposed the true face of some so-called ministers and leaders. Ecumenical commissions and groups must take notice of this dangerous trend and prevent places of worship from becoming politicized.

Playing on the religious sentiments of dedicated parishioners is a cheap and immoral tactic. The presence of a political figure in a Church building may temporarily boost the prestige of a particular religious leader, but such affiliations in the long run will prove damaging.

A transparent and credible electoral process is imperative for a true democratic and accountable Pakistan. The government and state institutions should maintain an impartial role throughout the electoral process, and no state or Church apparatus should be used for the benefit of any political party.

The Election Commission should make concrete policies to prevent the buying and selling of votes, the prohibitions against women voters, the use of terror or violence to influence the political process and any other form of meddling.

Voters should have the freedom to select their candidates on merit and reject any affiliation that promotes prejudice and hatred on the basis of gender, caste or creed.  

The practice of using the holiday season as a cloak for political opportunism is particularly offensive. 

The equality of all people and their right to freedom, fair play and the right to practice their faith in peace, is never more important a message than at this time of year and should not be tainted by the cynical behavior of unscrupulous political or religious leaders.

Silent Thinker is the pseudonym of a Catholic commentator based in Lahore

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