Interview with Pakistan Archbishop Emeritus Lawrence Saldanha

Archbishop Lawrence John Saldanha’s humble beginnings as a priest began upon his ordination on 16 January 1960 in Lahore, Pakistan. As a young priest studying in Rome, he obtained a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology and was secretary to Lahore’s bishop during the opening of Vatican II. While serving the diocese of Lahore, he held various positions. Between 1966 and 1973, he was the secretary of Caritas, Pakistan, which is part of the world’s largest humanitarian network. He was editor at Catholic Naqib, the oldest Urdu-language Catholic magazine, from 1971 to 1974. Then he became rector of Christ the King Seminary and taught Dogmatic Theology until 1983. He worked as a producer and chief coordinator with Radio Veritas and for six years served as Chairman of the Board. In 1998, he immigrated to Canada to join his extended family and was associate pastor at Precious Blood Church in Toronto for three years until he was called back to Pakistan upon the death of Bishop Armando Trindade. On 24 April 2001, he was appointed Archbishop of Lahore. On 11 September 2001, he was ordained Archbishop of Lahore by Pope John Paul II. After his retirement in April 2011, he returned to Canada and now resides in Toronto.

Upon his appointment, Archbishop Saldanha took as his motto “Heralds of Hope.” As the leader of one-third of Pakistan’s Catholic population, he served what was in his own words, “the most turbulent” archdiocese in Pakistan, although its geographical area is comparatively smaller than other Pakistani dioceses.

Why did you choose “Heralds of Hope” as your motto?

The motto of the seminary was “Heralds of Christ the King.” I changed the wording slightly for my motto because I wanted to give hope to the people. I gave them consolation by visiting and praying with them and giving them support.

What is it like to be a Catholic in Lahore?

People are very sad and frustrated. They are afraid to speak out because there are many limitations placed on them. So many Christians are trying to leave. There is a relatively small number of Muslim extremists, but they have a very specific agenda. Their methods are very violent and there is increasing polarization between Christians and Muslims.

What crime are Christians accused of the most?

The accusation of blasphemy is the biggest issue. Blasphemy is a very vague term and open to a broad interpretation. It is easy to accuse someone of this crime, especially when the accuser does so in the name of Islam. Even if a Christian accidentally drops the Qu’ran, he can be accused. Often a joke can be interpreted as blasphemy. People have to be so careful of what they say and how they act. Often, when people who are convicted of blasphemy are released from jail, they are not safe. We would try to get them out of Lahore, perhaps to another town or another country. We worked with humanitarian organizations to assist them.

Were you accused of blasphemy?

No. I was always very careful in my statements and quite conscious that my homilies give only positive teachings about the Catholic Faith. I made no direct reference to Islam. When I was working in media at Radio Veritas and at Catholic Naqib, we were always very careful.

In March of 2011, Minister of Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, was assassinated for speaking out in defense of Aasia Bibi. Bibi was the Christian woman who garnered international attention when she was sentenced to death for allegedly committing blasphemy against the prophet Mohammad. What were your thoughts when this occurred?

We were shocked but not surprised when it happened. Tensions between Christians and Muslims had been building because of the international reaction to her arrest. Mr. Bhatti was warned by extremists that he also was insulting the prophet Mohammad. The Muslim governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, was assassinated by his own bodyguard in January because he spoke out in defense of Aasia Bibi. Shahbaz Bhatti knew that he would be next. Peace-loving Muslims know that the situation cannot continue, but when they speak out there are target killings, usually against journalists, lawyers, doctors, human rights activists. It takes someone very brave to speak against the extremists.

The riots and destruction of the Joseph Colony in Badami Bagh, Lahore on 11 March 2013, would have affected your former parishioners. Muslims set fire to 178 Christian homes after a Christian from the colony was accused of blasphemy. Are such riots common?

What happened in Badami Bagh was very sad. Muslims usually start riots when a Christian is accused of breaking the anti-blasphemy laws. Christians are angry and frustrated and sometimes they also start a small demonstration, usually by throwing rocks or blocking a highway.

There are often clashes between Muslims and Christians all over Pakistan. Did you have to protect yourself when you were Archbishop?

I had a driver but did not feel the need of a bodyguard. I could have been shot at any time. I would have been helpless if they really wanted to shoot me, even with a bodyguard. There are security guards at the gates of Sacred Heart Cathedral and they search people before allowing them to enter. In 2008, a bomb blast at the nearby police station and jail caused much damage to the cathedral and the bishop’s house, but the attack was not aimed at the church. We were indirectly affected. A similar bomb blast in May 2013 in Quetta caused extensive damage to the bishop’s house.

Did you reach out to the Muslim leaders?

Some of us tried to facilitate inter-faith dialogue between Christians and non-Christians. We held ecumenical meetings and organized forums, but many Muslim groups were not willing to attend. Certain Muslim groups who wanted to come felt paralyzed and were afraid. I had good relations with a few Muslim leaders like Asma Jehangir and I. A. Rahmanand. They would come when we invited them to functions. But it is impossible to dialogue with the hardline extremists and Taliban.

What can we learn from the events in Pakistan and the Middle East?

We must continue to try and build bridges with Muslim groups. We cannot cut ourselves off from them or we will have a clash of civilizations. Study Islam and be aware of what is happening in the rest of the world. We must not close our eyes to what is going on. Extremists have their own agenda and they are very violent. Even ordinary Muslims experience trouble from them. There is no answer to the extremist problem and they are becoming bolder. Look at what is happening in Turkey and Egypt. We need to be aware so it does not happen here.

Life in Pakistan would be safer for Catholics if they convert to Islam. Are Catholics in Pakistan fervent in their faith or do many of them become Muslim?

Some people are forced to undergo Muslim conversions. Women, especially nurses, teachers, and village girls who are visible in public are often kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam. Certainly it would be easier for them, but very few Catholics voluntarily convert to Islam. They are aware that a bomb can go off in the church while they are at Mass, but despite everything they are very faithful and very active in church life. They believe that it is better to suffer martyrdom in the Catholic Church. They are very resilient in the face of persecution and oppression.

How can we in the West strengthen our faith?

Life in Canada is very easy and there are no real challenges. There are so many options and so much wealth. People are very comfortable and so they have become complacent. This causes a lack of commitment and that is why there are so few vocations. People just go through the motions. They go to church but they don’t really want to go deeper into their Faith. We need to appreciate our Catholic faith. Get involved and show solidarity in social issues. Volunteer. Young people should be active in missionary work. Catholics need to stop complaining, count their blessings and live a simpler life.

How are you spending your retirement?

Parishes invite me to give talks about what is happening in Pakistan. I do a lot of reading and sometimes I help out at different parishes. I also celebrate Mass for the Pakistani community in Toronto.

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