A big surprise awaited Pakistani Christians when they looked through newspapers earlier this month. “Pope Francis to visit Pakistan following PM's invitation,” proclaimed headlines that were followed by stories about Pope Francis accepting Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s invitation to visit the country by the end of this year. The reports were based on accounts from two government officials saying they had come to Rome “to ask the Holy Father to come to Pakistan and he agreed.” Foreign-based Catholic news agencies, reporting on Church life in the Islamic republic, were quick to carry related reports that soon went viral on social media. Catholic Church officials, despite being skeptical, were excited nonetheless.
“We have not received any written information from Rome,” one Catholic bishop said. “Still, his visit will show solidarity with Pakistan; it’s a great encouragement for our people who have been facing terrorism for years.”
The thrill, however, was short-lived, as Vatican spokesman Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi quickly clarified that there is “currently no travel program to Pakistan being studied.” The pope was grateful for the invitation but neither accepted nor declined, Vatican sources told the National Catholic Register.
The last time Pakistanis had a chance to meet a Vicar of Christ was in 1981 when Pope St. John Paul II celebrated a Mass at National Stadium in the Karachi metropolis. Minutes before his arrival for the Mass, a bomb exploded at the stadium. Unfortunately, the security situation in the country only worsened over the decades. Religious fundamentalism became a norm in the society divided on Islamic militancy. Christian settlements were raided on the behest of blasphemy allegation, a highly sensitive issue in the country. Foreign tourism came to a halt especially after the killing of Osama bin Laden by the U.S. military in northern Abbottabad city.
But despite, or perhaps because of, this upheaval, the prospect of a papal visit would mean much for local Christians who make up only 2 percent of Pakistan's 182 million people. And though it may seem that news about a visit by the bishop of Rome to Pakistan would be too good to be true, Francis’ unpredictability factor leaves room for hope that it may be a possibility. After all, Pope Francis is the first modern pontiff to visit an active war zone during his trip to the Central African Republic, and he even visited the violent suburbs of Mexico.
It has been reported that Pope Francis is likely to visit nearby Indonesia in 2017. A brief stop in Pakistan by one of the most public figures in the world will further cement the faith of a flock that has stood the test of time amid religious discrimination and persecution. We are the privileged ones for having the opportunity to live out the passion of Christ, the former vicar general of the Archdiocese of Lahore, Pakistan, used to say.
A visit by the pope also would be a great step forward for the country. The nation especially has evolved after the December 2014 massacre at Peshawar's Army Public School in which 144 people were killed, the majority of whom were schoolchildren. The deadliest attack on a civilian target in Pakistan’s history sparked widespread public anger against the Islamic militant organization Tehreek-e-Taliban and their version of Shariah (Islamic law). The government promptly reacted by lifting a seven-year moratorium on the death penalty in all capital cases and devised a national action plan to crack down on extremism. The military intensified its ongoing offensive against militants in tribal areas, while the country’s apex court upheld the establishment of military courts for speedy trials.
But arguably the strongest statement of change came on Feb. 29 with the hanging of convicted murderer Mumtaz Qadri. Qadri gunned down a former Punjab governor in 2011 for speaking out against the country’s controversial blasphemy laws in the wake of the sentencing to death of Asia Bibi, a Catholic woman, for alleged blasphemy (Bibi’s latest appeal is scheduled to be heard by the Lahore High Court on March 26). There is no denying that the prosecution and execution of Qadri shocked many Pakistani Muslims who saw him as a hero. The message was quite loud and clear: Pakistan is changing, though at a slow pace.
The results already are here. Recent media reports citing official data have revealed that terrorism declined in 2015 compared to previous years; specifically, the number of people killed in 2015 decreased by 34 percent as compared to 2014, according to the Pak Institute for Peace Studies.
Many Church leaders believe the current climate in Pakistan is not conducive for arrival of the Holy Father. Their fears stem from an extremist mindset prevalent even among the educated sections of society. To get past this, the state has to think beyond religion and continue to make unpopular decisions if necessary. Pakistan’s survival depends on being a truly democratic entity, not a theocratic colony.
Security agencies in Pakistan have been successful in protecting foreign delegations not only in the capital of Islamabad but in other cities as well. They have the capacity to protect Pope Francis, too, if he chooses to make history again — only this time for us.
Kamran Chaudhry writes from Pakistan.