Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Pakistan reaffirms commitment to protection of minorities and religious freedom

Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Hina Rabbani KharPakistan’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 Pakistan”
 
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 minorities).
 
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 2011.
 
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.

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