Although 2018 had many blessings for minority Christians in Pakistan, it wasn't without hurdles and hiccups. Among the highlights was the surprise naming by Pope Francis in May of then Archbishop Joseph Coutts
of Karachi among his 14 new cardinals. Cardinal Coutts is only the second Pakistani to be honored with the title after Archbishop Joseph Cardeiro, who was a cardinal from 1973 to 1994. While it is a mere coincidence that both Pakistani Cardinals share the same first names and archdiocese, there is no doubt that Karachi holds a special rank in the Pakistani Church. Christians from all over the country flocked to its national stadium in 1981 to see Pope St. John Paul II, the only pope to visit the country.
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I had predicted a possible "New Year's gift" of a Pakistani Cardinal in a 2017 column. My heartfelt thanks to the Holy Father
for giving us another genuine reason to celebrate our faith in our Muslim-majority country. In October, the pope announced that this year's financial support from the group 'Aid to the Church in Need' would be donated to Christians in Pakistan. It's another gift for the persecuted minority who are guaranteed equal rights and protection by the constitution of the Islamic Republic, yet continue to be marginalized from the mainstream and often deprived of basic social services. According to Cardinal Coutts, "one of the big needs is to keep up the quality and standards of our educational institutions and our hospitals and small clinics because the government does not directly help the Church." Pope Francis has repeatedly appealed to civil authorities and social components of Pakistan to restore security and peace to the population and, in particular, to the most vulnerable religious minorities. Asia Bibi Asia Bibi
, a mother sentenced to death over blasphemy allegations, even kept a rosary sent by Pope Francis in her solitary confinement. This February, Pope Francis met Bibi's husband Ashiq Masih and their daughter Eisham at the Vatican. Hers is the most high-profile case of a Christian being accused of blasphemy, a case linked to the assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, the Catholic minister for minorities, and the Punjab governor Salman Taseer whose murderer Mumtaz Qadri was hung by the state. Christmas came early for Christians nationwide after Pakistan's Supreme Court set aside Bibi's death sentence and ordered her release from prison in October. But, as expected, Islamist groups locked down the whole country with violent protests and sit-ins. After Bibi was granted freedom, the city of Lahore became a hub for rallies. Twenty-eight religious political parties held a 'million march' in Lahore Nov. 15 to protest Bibi's acquittal. Trust in our justice system reached new peaks when recently elected Prime Minister Imran Khan defended Bibi's release in an address to the nation. His speech won the hearts of those fed up with the hardliners' street protests. Human rights' activists and celebrities endorsed the speech on social media. "Even if he backs down from his stance, Khan at least displayed his will to protect vulnerable religious minorities," a church official told me. Indeed, it was a brave stance. I still remember the haunting silence following the assassination of Bhatti in 2011. Even the most vocal organization of the Pakistan Catholic Bishops' Conference — the National Commission for Justice and Peace — stopped appearing at street protests after the tragedy. Thank you, Prime Minister Khan, for taking a stance against these radical Islamic groups who are only interested in playing with public sentiment and increasing their vote bank. Khan's stern warning gave confidence to news anchors and human rights' activists to publicly denounce violent Islamic clerics. These clerics are the reason organizations such as 'International Christian Concern' reported a spike in the persecution of Pakistani Christians in the first six months of 2018. Another round of applause for our PM who inaugurated a new visa-free corridor between the Gurdwara Shrine in Pakistan at Kartarpur and the Indian town of Dera Baba Nanak, about six kilometres away. The latest border opening will allow access by Sikh pilgrims to the two holy sites without visas for the first time since the border was established here in 1947 when India and Pakistan gained independence from Britain. Even if the Indian government backs down from its commitment, Khan has won the hearts of the Sikh community worldwide. The corridor will act as a bridge between people of the two countries. Pakistan is not an ideal place for non-Muslims citizens but the Church derives a sense of greater optimism from wonderful Muslims who have a broad, tolerant outlook. Our country is at an important juncture in its history. The so-called 'Kartarpur Corridor Project' and pro-minority verdicts from top courts, such as the one that freed Asia Bibi, give us hope of better days. Finally, the Catholic mother Asia Bibi will be spending Christmas with her family. Happy New Year to all of you as well! Kamran Chaudhry is a Catholic commentator based in Lahore.