Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, reaffirmed today her country’s commitment to religious freedom and the protection of minorities and warmly praised the Catholic Church’s service and contribution to the people of her country in the fields of education and health care.
She did so at an encounter with the press at the
Italian Foreign Ministry, in Rome, and later in her speech at the
presentation of the Italian edition of the book, “The Churches of
Questioned by the press about the situation of
Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Catholic mother of five children, in prison and
under sentence of death since November 2010 on charges of blasphemy
against the Prophet Mohammed and now awaiting the results of her appeal,
the Pakistani Minister noted that the case was “sub judice” and
preferred not to comment. She said it was important that the due process
of law take its route.
The Italian Foreign Minister, Giulio Terzi,
revealed that he had discussed “this painful case” with her, and
recognized that it is under judicial appeal.
He said he had received confirmation from her that
the Government is firmly committed to the protection of minorities in
this majority Muslim country of 190 million people. (The 5 million
Christians – including 3.5 million Catholics - are one of these
Addressing an audience of more than 100 persons at
the book’s presentation in the Foreign Ministry, Rabbani Khar recalled
that “tolerance is a core value of the Pakistani nation” and said this
“pictorial view of the churches that are spread across the length and
breadth of Pakistan” is a testimony to that.
She went onto recall how Pakistan’s founding
father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, had insisted in a speech to the Constituent
Assembly on the importance that all its citizens should be able to
freely practice the religion of their choice. Moreover, she said, the Constitution guarantees full religious freedom to all its citizens.
She acknowledged that Pakistan today faces
“specific challenges”, and said terrorism has taken a heavy a toll in
this land which is next to a country still at war – Afghanistan. In actual fact, since 9/11, Pakistan has lost some 40,000 civilians, 7,000 security personnel, and suffered even more injuries, Pakistan’s ambassador to Italy, Tehmina Janjua, who accompanied the Foreign Minister, told me recently.
Rabbani Khar, 35, the country’s first ever woman
Foreign Minister, went on to remind her audience that people in
government positions in recent times too have “sacrificed their lives”
to promote and guarantee democracy, religious freedom and the protection
of minorities in Pakistan - a reference to people like Salmaan Taseer,
the Governor of Punjab, and Shabaz Bhatti, a Catholic and Federal
Minister for Minority Affairs, both of whom were assassinated in early
She assured her audience that the Government of
Pakistan is committed to protecting and guarantees these values too,
values it shares with Italy.
“All too often”, she said, the outside world only
hears “the voices of those on the fringe” – by which she meant the
extremists or fundamentalists. That obscures the reality, she added, but
Pakistan’s Government is determined that these fringe elements will not
have the upper hand. Italy’s support was important here, she stated.
Earlier, she and Minister Terzi signed a
“Strategic Agreement Plan” defining the framework of the bilateral
relations between their two countries in several areas of cooperation. She
thanked Italy for the “development assistance” in these years, and also
for humanitarian aid given to her country following recent natural
disasters. Italy is the third trading partner of Pakistan in the
European Union, and it is providing important help in gaining her
country access to EU markets, she stated
Concluding the meeting with the press, Italy’s
Minister Terzi expressed his country’s “profound condolence” and
“solidarity” with the Pakistani people at the kamikaze attack against
the Shiite community in north-west Pakistan earlier in the day.