Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Inter-Faith Dialogue Threatened By Islamists (Pakistan)

The Catholic bishop of Faisalabad and two Muslims, a scholar and a journalist, received death threats after attending an interfaith programme held in a local madrassah some months ago.

A hitherto unknown extremist group calling itself the “Islamic Soldiers Front” claimed responsibility for threatening letters and phone calls which branded the three men as “infidels”.

Monsignor Joseph Coutts, who heads the diocese of Faisalabad, said: “We are not going to be terrorized by such intimidations, we will continue our interfaith activities for social harmony and peace in the country.”

Recent years have seen the development of positive relations between Christians and Muslims in Faisalabad, the third largest city of Pakistan, not least thanks to the leading role played by Mgr Coutts in local committees in which there are many Muslims too. What’s more, NGOs are working together to promote dialogue and mutual respect.

The latest incidents reveal the tough opposition from extremists and fanatics facing such initiatives. Following an interfaith meeting held for Christmas in a Muslim school, Siddique Lasani Sarkar, head of the madrassah and a known scholar, Mgr Coutts and Khawar Javed Shafiq, a journalist and head of the World Tolerance Organization, received threatening letters and phone calls from the so-called “Islamic Soldiers Front”.

On February 17, armed Muslim clerics broke into the office of a monthly magazine “Finance Centre” run by Khawar Javed Shafiq and demanded to know where “the enemy of Islam” was.

One of the employees told them Khawar Javed was out of the office to cover an event so the men turned on him, slapping him and threatening to come back to kill his boss.

They ransacked the office, destroyed its records, took the employee’s cell phone, locked him in and left. Shortly afterwards, Khawar Javed received an anonymous phone call to let him know that he would soon be dead because of his anti-Islam activities.

Lasani Sarkar and Khawar Javed Shafiq filed a report with the police as opposed to Mgr Coutts who decided against this course of action. So far, however, no one has been arrested.

Khawar Javed, 34, courageously told AsiaNews: “We want to bring a positive change in our society where every one should be respected as a human being. We organized the Christmas program in the madarassah to promote interfaith harmony and this was a unique thing in the country.”

He said the World Tolerance Organization started in Pakistan in 2002 after the murder of journalist Daniel Pearl. Since then, different interfaith events have been organised. The office of Khawar Javed is currently closed and publication of his magazine has been suspended for fear of further attacks.

Meanwhile, the personal secretary of Lasani Sarkar said the scholar would press ahead with his mission of interfaith harmony and would not be intimidated by the threats, which were not the first he had received.

He added: “We condemn such dishonest Muslims who for their own political motives use their personal and mistaken interpretations of Islam.”



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