Good morning Ladies and gentlemen, it is a huge honor and privilege for me to be here among you today to talk on this important topic "Religions and Violence". I take this opportunity to express my sincere thanks to the Comunity of S.Egidio for thier tireless efforts to bring peace and harmony in this world and for their suppor to my strugge in Pakistan promoting religious freedom.
Today we are facing a series of challenges of religious violence around the world. Though I am convinced that ‘true’ religion is a peaceful means of living together in harmony and it is only a deviation and deception of it that leads to violence. And yet most of the time, religion is hijacked, misused to attack, divide, as well as create hatred and fear among people of different faith traditions. This often leads to political instability, economic crisis such creating a vicious circle trapping the whole of society in many countries.
Since Last 5 years I have been living different situations in my country where we have experienced horrific act of violence: houses were looted, properties burnt to ash, loss of innocent and precious lives which compelled us to understand the complex phenoma behind such tragedies.
Let me share a few examples:
• In March 2013 a young man of about 30 years Sawan Masih, from a very poor community of Lahore St. Joseph Colony was falsely accused of blasphemy after an altercation with his Muslim friend over the purchase of alcohol. After few days his friend accused him of blasphemy and the matter was announced pubblicaly specialy in those areas where religious intolerence is on peak, resulting in an overexcited mob of about 5000 people who gathered and attacked the colony where the family of this accused boy was living. They torched the whole colony, throwing petrol tins and chemicals. This resulted in 100 houses being burnt to the ground and some people sustaining several severe injuries.
• May 2014, Rashid Rehman, a lawyer who assisted a teacher accused of blasphemy, after being threatened during a court hearing was murdered.
• November 2014, a young mother Shama, a brick kiln worker who was seven months pregnant, and her husband Shahzad were accused of blasphemy by one of their neighbors. Again the issue was announced in local public which resulted in an a huge gathering of overexcited people who beat the couple, dragged them behind a cart, broke their legs so they could not run away finally throwing them alive into a fire to be burnt to death. Their young children witnessed this whole nightmare.
• Significantly, there was a different case with that of Rimsha Masih, a 14-year-old Christian girl who is mentally underdeveloped, and was wrongfully accused of blasphemy by a group of malicious people, who stated that she burnt sacred pages of Holy Quran.
An entire story was fabricated where a witness stated they saw her insulting pages of the Holy Quran and then burnt them. This false charge was the basis to incite a violent attack against the Christian community in the area. Their plan, as in previous cases was to publicly announce this so-called act of blasphemy during Friday prayers in more than 100 major Mosques in Islamabad and Rawalpindi, in order to incite anti-Christian sentiments and acts of violence. After few hours a number of Christian people including religious leaders gathered in my office fearful and asking me for help.
This was the first time in my life I had to personally face this kind of challenging situation. I was deeply moved and concerned about their safety. I immediately contacted all the heads of law enforcing institutions including the Interior Minister and the President of Pakistan in Islamabad who assured me of their full cooperation. But still there were concerns about the enormous numbers of worshippers attending prayer at the Mosques, and the high risk of militant agitators who could inflame the crowds to violent rioting against Christians. It was a huge challenge to face this situation as the head of Religious Minorities at the time. Simultaneously, it came in my mind to reach out and contact to the chief of Imams in the major Mosques in Islamabad and Rawalpindi.
Surprisingly, each of them showed genuine concern and a willingness to help. Their collaboration and support helped quickly to diffuse a difficult, highly dangerous, and tense situation that could have resulted in the loss of life and widespread violence. With their help, there was not a single attack on our Christian communities.
Rimsha’s case went to trial and was eventually heard at the Supreme Court. Through the help of Muslim religious leaders, police officials, lawyers and the media, we were able to prove how she was accused falsely and that bag of ash claimed to be pages of the Holy Quran was forensically proven to be leaves and branches from a tree.
Finally, she was not only exonerated and released from incarceration, but her accuser for the first time in history, was held accountable for his actions and brought to justice by the Muslim people for filing a false blasphemy charge.
Rimsha’s case set a spiritual, moral, and legal precedent for change, with evidential proof how with a united religious and civil society approach we can bring peace and justice in society and overcome evil with good.
This kind of situation for poor and innocent victims is extremely crushing as they often face prolonged litigations, detentions, court expenditures, loss of livelihood, temporary and permanent displacement of their families. Furthermore, the fear and emotional cost that the people have to bear is beyond our imagination.
Some of the factors that I consider are the root cause of this present religious violence are as follow:
• The persistently high levels of poverty, illiteracy and huge disparities with life styles and well-being among developed and underdeveloped countries are the root cause factors of the situation. Extreme poverty leads to suffering, loss of hope, lost opportunity and a sense of grievance; all of which continue to undermine peace, stability, prosperity and harmony in the world.
• Lack of education. Millions of children in underdeveloped countries of all school ages don't attend school. They are deprived of their right to education that has prevented them from reaching their full potential. Investing in children and their education is both a right in principle and must be so in practice due to the positive impact it has on so many socio-economic and religious dimensions. on the other hand this creates a fertile environment for specific groups who with a certain ideology take advantage and actively brainwash children during schooling. They are brought up with the conviction to live, kill and die in the name of specific ideology. They do not have any other objective in life than to defend and live for this specific ideology. As we are all aware this is anti-human, and against the teaching of any religion. Its criminal and must be considered and condemed by all religious faiths. Religious Minorities in some countries are considered a threat among certain majority groups and often with their growing in number, has increased this threat in their minds creating fear. In turn, this fear potentially triggers aggressive reactions from those who view them as a threat. Therefore, discrimination with acts of violence can be seen within several sectors of life in different societies especially in underdeveloped countries. It certainly affects the marginalized, oppressed and those least influential who cannot retaliate and stand up for themselves.
We believe that education is a key with the potential to transform for the long-term future of the people and indeed nations. It empowers people to lift themselves out of poverty and to think for themselves. Children who are able to enjoy the benefits of quality education also have every opportunity to engage in meaningful employment, which in turn impacts on the economic growth of society. We must put our efforts towards improving access and the quality of schooling, wherever and however possible.
The alternative is disparities in education, influenced by multiple factors such as wealth, gender, ethnicity, geographic location, low early learning opportunities and generally low quality of learning.
Further we are convinced that the role played by educators is fundamental to the inherent success of any educational program, bringing effective change for the future. “How and what is taught [including the ‘hidden curriculum’ or that which is modeled, though not deliberately taught] deeply influences whether children appreciate and respect ethnic and religious diversity, or view their minority fellow negatively as valueless aliens in their own country. We know that, if instilled early in life, these negative attitudes resist change and contribute to the disintegration of the social fabric of communities, to discrimination, and finally, to sectarian violence.
Tackling poverty and building stable, prosperous, and democratic societies will not only help millions of affected people in the world, but will also improve stability and peace throughout the world.
The role of religion in conflict presents urgent challenges that require greater understanding and co-operation among people of diverse faiths. We must honor and protect the common values of our faiths that nobody is authorized to kill or make justice for them in the name of religion. Life is a precious gift of God and only He has the right to give it and take it away.
It is the great need of our time that all religions and thier heads get united on a common agenda to take concrete steps for action to overcome evil with good. We seek to promote a fair and just world, where there is peace, human equality, and social justice.
I think the following points can help to reduce religious violence in different society specialy where there are frequent act of violence.
• Promoting peaceful teaching of religions through, Media campaigns with messages, which are easily understandable emphasizing human dignity, basic rights and respect for all faiths.
• Academia at all levels but especially schools, teachers and students at the grass roots level being introduced to a new subject on human dignity, equality, tolerance, basic human rights as well as religious studies that encompass the faith traditions of all religions.
• Inter religious dialogue promoting religious freedom as a basic human right, which must be respected and honored by all of us. Religious leaders, who can make this turn, hold the keys to a transform our world, eliminating hatred, discrimination, division and violence expressed on the name of religion for better future of everybody.
• Adequate and easy access to theological education and training be set in place to ensure all potential religious leaders no matter what faith tradition receive, adequate training and understanding of other faith traditions, teaching values of peace and harmony.
• Networking with intra-community and inter-community organizations having similar goals to extend and intensify peace-building work.