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What will 2017 hold for Pakistani Catholics?

Fingers are crossed that pope will visit, country gets a new cardinal
What will 2017 hold for Pakistani Catholics?

Pakistani Christians pray during a Christmas service at the Cathedral Church in Lahore on Dec. 18, 2016. (Photo by AFP) 

Ready or not, 2017 is here. While the western media continue to explore the dark tales of radicalism and extremism in our troubled country, Pakistani Catholics can expect bigger and better things this year.

And what’s bigger than the appointment of a cardinal in an Islamic country? Catholic leaders have already sent their final list of names to Rome; a church worker recently said Bishop Benny Mario Travas of Multan Diocese is among those recommended.

The former professor of canon law at Karachi’s National Catholic Institute of ‎Theology was appointed Bishop of Multan, in Punjab, last year. He was recently made chair of Caritas Pakistan.

The appointment of a cardinal could be the best New Year’s gift from Pope Francis to a country that hasn’t seen a cardinal since 1994 when Pakistan’s first cardinal, Joseph Cordeiro, died. A senior cleric could also help the pope in supporting refugees fleeing war and hunger. In 2015, Pakistan ranked 5th in the top countries of origin in EU+ countries, with a total number of almost 48,000 applicants.  

Another Asian red hat would further strengthen the College of Cardinals, bolstered by new recruits from Bangladesh and Malaysia last year. Pope Francis, who promoted Myanmar’s Archbishop Charles Bo in 2015, could do the same for Pakistan in 2017. Such an inclusion would be a huge blessing for a religious minority living under shadows of political instability, “Talibanization” and Islamic militancy.

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New bishops

This takes me to my next prediction, especially for Catholics in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which borders Afghanistan. The Islamabad-Rawalpindi diocese has been vacant since elderly Bishop Rufin Anthony died of a heart attack last October. It has been the talk of the town that Bishop Joseph Arshad of Faisalabad will be appointed to the northern diocese.

Bishop Arshad is already doing double duty as the apostolic administrator of Islamabad-Rawalpindi Diocese. His transfer to Islamabad, the federal capital, is seen as the most appropriate choice due to his 14 years of diplomatic experience. Even if he is not transferred, Pakistan will get a new bishop this year.

“I accepted this responsibility on the condition that the Vatican will soon arrange for a new bishop. I cannot even find time for myself,” the 52-year-old prelate told me.

Similarly, Bishop Victor Gnanapragasam, 76, of Quetta Apostolic Vicariate has retired. Despite his age, the prelate deserves special recognition for serving in Balochistan province, which has been marked by repression. He was a foreigner, Sri Lankan to be precise. In a country where foreigners are rarely seen, Bishop Gnanapragasam bravely led his flock for decades.

However it came with a price. The quietest member of Pakistan’s Catholic Bishop’s Conference never appeared in the national media. My prayers go out to the Catholics of Balochistan for a local (and more vocal) bishop.  

 

Pope’s visit

The third is more of a New Year’s wish than a real possibility. The biggest confusion this year among Pakistani Catholics was whether or not Pope Francis would visit and if not, was the government of Pakistan to blame?

In March on a visit to the Vatican, Kamran Michael, Federal Minister for Human Rights and Sardar Yusuf, Religious Affairs Minister, reported that Pope Francis had accepted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s invitation to visit Pakistan by the end of 2016.

Extremely excited, I called several priests the same day for their reaction. To my disappointment, many knew nothing about it. Vatican sources were quick to deny any “travel program to Pakistan,” stating that the pope had neither accepted nor declined the invitation.

Despite clarification from Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi, Kamran Michael repeated the announcement when he returned home and spoke to news channels in Lahore. His claims vanished with 2016. Michael’s meeting with the pope may have won him a nice photo opportunity but if he is really sincere about hosting the pontiff and attracting the gaze of the world, he needs to first prepare the ground.

He is already in the Pakistani bishops’ good books for freeing more than 100 prisoners for the Year of Mercy. The bishops have high hopes that Michael, who enjoys close (even familial) relations with the prime minister, can convince lawmakers to create pro-minority laws and implement them in full.

It has been more than three decades since a pope visited the Islamic republic. The situation has worsened for religious minorities since Pope John Paul visited in 1981. Seeing the pope in person is the best gift a Pakistani Catholic can have.

Whatever challenges the year may bring, the church in Pakistan as well as our vibrant civil society has always stood ready to promote equal rights and social justice. My warmest wishes and heartiest welcome to our new leaders!

Kamran Chaudhry is a Catholic commentator based in Lahore.

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