Pakistan archbishop's interfaith focus leads to red hat

Peace-loving Joseph Coutts is rewarded for his promotion of religious harmony by being elevated to a cardinal
Pakistan archbishop's interfaith focus leads to red hat

Archbishop Joseph Coutts (second from left) is shown at a rally celebrating the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad (Eid Milad-ul-Nabi) along with Sikh and Hindu leaders in December 2017. It was organized by the Interfaith Commission for Peace and Harmony. (Photo by Ayyaz Gulzar/ucanews.com)

Archbishop Joseph Coutts sees himself as a conductor — not of musicians but of religious leaders from various faiths.

He will soon be leading his religious orchestra as a cardinal after being named by Pope Francis on May 20 as one of two Asian bishops to be promoted. 

"I am very surprised at my elevation as cardinal," he said. "I am only hearing it from media and friends. I am yet to be officially notified by the Vatican. However, if the news is correct, I will be traveling to the Vatican in June to receive the red hat."

Based in Karachi, Pakistan's most populous city, the archbishop has made interreligious dialogue a priority ever since he headed the Archdiocese of Karachi in 2012.

He recently formed the first-ever diocesan commission to promote interfaith harmony and said he often attends programs, seminars and conferences to encourage people from different religions to live together peacefully.

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"Christians who live here should promote a culture of harmony," said the 72-year-old archbishop.

"We all are musical notes. Each note has a specific identity but when played together they spread a message of peace, joy, love and harmony," he said.

He said the beauty of Karachi as a cosmopolitan city is the ease with which it accommodates people of various religions and from different provinces, tribes and castes.

Over the last four years Muslim leaders have made regular visits to St. Patrick's Cathedral to meet with the archbishop on religious holidays like Christmas and Easter.

Archbishop Joseph Coutts fields questions from local media in this file photo. (Photo by Ayyaz Gulzar/ucanews.com)

 

Archbishop Coutts served as the bishop of Hyderabad Diocese from 1990 to 1998, after which he was transferred to Faisalabad Diocese until Pope Benedict XVI appointed him as archbishop of Karachi in 2012.

"In this diocese the church has for over six decades brought good news in the fields of education and medicine, and in the case of natural disasters reached out to those who have been affected, injured or become sick," he said.

"It's time to promote harmony. That is our new motto. We have to learn it and teach it. Now we are tasked with restoring harmony to this seaport city by welcoming people from different customs and traditions.

"There are many challenges for the church in Pakistan. I cannot sum it up in one word. Basically, since Pakistan is an Islamic republic, we who are non-Muslim Pakistanis whether we are Catholics or from any other religion, one of the difficult challenges we face is to be accepted as Pakistanis. Because for some non-Muslims are not true citizens of the country, although that was not the idea of the founder of Pakistan.

"The founder of Pakistan told us as Muslims or non-Muslims Pakistanis we have to build the nation together and that is that we have been doing. The Catholic Church in particular has made a very big contribution in the development of Pakistan, especially in the fields of health and education and other social issues.

"I think we have contributed far beyond our numbers. We have around two million Catholics in Pakistan."

In December 2017, Archbishop Coutts joined a rally to celebrate the birthday of the Prophet Mohammad organized by the Interfaith Commission for Peace and Harmony. Attendees included Sikh and Hindu leaders.

One month earlier on Nov. 17, the Baha'i community was overjoyed to see the archbishop lead an event feting what would have been the 200th birthday of Hazrat Baha'u'llah, the founder of the Baha'i faith, who was born in Persia in 1817.

The archbishop (right) likes to mingle with leaders of other faiths.  (Photo by Ayyaz Gulzar/ucanews.com)

 

"The community was not expecting this," said Farhad Mashriqui, a representative of the Baha'i community.

"It is an honor for us that the church leadership has invited people of various religions to share their love on this joyous occasion as we celebrate the bicentennial our spiritual leader."

The same day, a group of Christian leaders joined the Sikh community in celebrating the 549th birthday of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, at a holy temple in Karachi.

The group included representatives of the National Commission of Justice and Peace (NCJP), Jesus Youth Pakistan, Caritas Pakistan Karachi, and the National Commission of Interfaith Harmony.

Sardar Heera Singh said he appreciated the presence of the non-Sikh attendees as he presented gifts to them on behalf of the other members of his faith.

Kashif Anthony, a coordinator at the NCJP and a member of diocesan interfaith harmony commission, led the group.

"This is a positive gesture to show unity with our brothers and sisters of other faiths. No doubt their festivals are always filled with joy but our presence brings them even more happiness," he said.

Archbishop Coutts said the recent spate of attacks in Pakistan has been a big problem for the minority as well as the majority.

"This is a problem that is affecting the whole country. This extremist, very fanatic form of Islam, which is not the Islam of the general population, is affecting not only Christians and other non-Muslims, but the terrorists are not sparing even Muslims. They are targeting shrines and mosques. They have a different kind of ideology altogether and they are causing a lot of harm to the country. Christians are also suffering," he said.

"People, as a result of the persecution, begin to lose confidence. They lose confidence in the government to do something. We have elections coming. We should not be negative about it. As Christians, we should pray for the country, pray for good leadership, pray for good political leadership and people who can really make the country united. We should pray for the good that is there to increase. We should join hands with people who are open to all communities."

Both Catholics and Muslims, involved in interfaith commissions, rejoiced at the news of Archbishop Coutts becoming a cardinal.

Father Inayat Bernard, rector of the Sacred Heart Cathedral, said the Pakistan Church had been waiting for a red hat since 1994 when Pakistan's first cardinal, Joseph Cordeiro, died.

"This is like a breath of fresh air for us. We have beautiful feelings. The naming of a cardinal from an Islamic country is a matter of great pride. Finally, Pakistan has a prince of the Church. On behalf of Holy Father, I congratulate all of you," said the senior priest while addressing an interfaith gathering at Dominican Peace Center in Lahore. 

Father Pascal Paulus, president of the Major Religious Superiors Leadership Conference of Pakistan, thanked Pope Francis.

"All the Christians in Pakistan are grateful and praying for the Holy Father. He truly loves us. We are proud of Joseph Coutts as our leader. The humble pastor is a symbol of Christ in Pakistan. He is a visionary person with knowledge and a good understanding of political matters," he said.

"Now the issues of human rights will carry more weight and we shall have a stronger voice. The great pastor will boost our morale and will be the reason for progress of the local church."

Sohail Ahmad Raza, the Muslim director of interfaith relations at Minhaj-ul-Quran International, remembers meeting Bishop Coutts at the Vatican in 2011.

"I was invited by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Relations and together we participated in the memorial service for federal minority affairs minister Shahbaz Bhatti [murdered in March 2011 by Islamist gunmen after he spoke out against Pakistan's blasphemy laws]," said Raza.

"The world has become a global village and such leaders help in bringing together diverse communities. This acceptance is the need of our times. Now we know that the pope has focused on Pakistan. This is an honor not only for Christians but also for Pakistan."  

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