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Pakistan Sunday Programme

Sunday 27th November 2005

Transcript of an interview for BBC Radio 4's Sunday Programme, following the Archbishop's return from Pakistan; focusing on Christian-Muslim relations and the earthquake aftermath

Roger Bolton: Archbishop, were you prepared for the scale of the disaster caused by the earthquake?

Archbishop of Canterbury: I don't think I was really because one of the things that came across to me immediately was just how many families had been affected, family members in affected areas, people with work colleagues with family connections, as if the lines, the cracks ran out in all directions very deeply. I hadn't quite taken that on board and I guess a lot of us had supposed that the effects were much more localised than they really are.

RB: And do you think the relief programme is working well and that there is enough aid now getting through.

ABC: Since the donor conference last weekend, things have definitely been looking up I think, at least there's a sense that a bit of a corner has been turned, all this money has now been firmly promised and there's a terrific agenda to be followed through now. But what did impress me was the scale of organisation and thought that had gone into the planning of the camp that I visited. There had been some very careful thinking about education so that teachers from affected areas were used to teach children from affected areas, following the syllabus they would have followed at home. And those teachers were also being taught additional skills so that when they went back to their ordinary existence they could take something extra with them, they were training in crafts and handiworks, enterprises going on, income generating exercises, the whole thing seemed very carefully orientated to not leaving them as passive victims, and I was very taken with that.

RB: Now what victims tend to ask any religious leader in these circumstances is why? Why did God let this happen? What is your response to that?

ABC: Well curiously that's not a question that seems to arise in that particular culture as it does for westerners. There's a very strong sense, of course, in the Muslim world that simply what happens is the will of God, you accept it, you submit. And where Christian might want to go into some very long and complex theories about how causes and effects work in the world that God has made. The instinctive response of a lot of Muslims seems to be 'well, this is what God has sent, this is what I must live with'.

RB: Can I turn to the other purpose of your visit, in fact presumably the primary purpose of your visit when it was planned, the relationships between Muslims and Christians in Pakistan. Do you think they are deteriorating and have deteriorated since 9/11?

ABC: I'm not sure they have deteriorated since 9/11 more than they have done over the last 20 or 30 years. There's a particular trend that you can watch since the passing of the blasphemy laws really, and there have been incidents of brutality and outrage well before 9/11, so I don't think it's just connected with that.

RB: Now the Christians that Barbara Plett and others have talked to in Pakistan, very much want the repeal of these strengthened blasphemy laws. Do you support that appeal and will you try and make such an appeal to the government of Pakistan yourself?

ABC: First of all there's actually a range of opinion among Christians about the blasphemy laws. There are good many who accept that an Islamic state is bound to have blasphemy laws, what they are worried about is two things; the death penalty and the extraordinarily, to put it mildly, inefficient and at worst, oppressive way, in which these laws have actually been used. They are a charter for casual accusations, working off private grudges, it's like the inquisition in the Middle Ages in that sense, or the witch hunts, if you want to get your own back on a neighbour then you've got a legal lever to use for that. So it's the operation that's the presenting problem and I'd be cautious I think about simply calling for repeal without understanding what's best in this context for Christians. That being said it's a question I've raised directly with the President of Pakistan and the Prime Minister of Pakistan with regional governors and regional ministers at every single meeting I've had with them which has been every day in the past week.

RB: And are they sympathetic to your concerns, do they recognise that there's a real issue which needs to resolved here?

ABC: I sense that there's actually a real embarrassment about the way the blasphemy laws operate. When you raise the question there's a certain kind of shifting and awkwardness in the response. People recognise that they are working extremely badly and the fact is of course that they are used against other Muslims and other minorities as well against Christians, it's not just a Christian problem. What has struck me has been the willingness of a great many very senior politicians to be absolutely clear about this and say that these laws are not working well, they are not creating trust, they are actually bad for everybody. And even more surprisingly, this afternoon at a seminar I attended here in Lahore, the minister for religious affairs and minorities who is a conservative Muslim, said in front of a very large audience that he totally condemned the Sangla Hill attacks and that he wanted to say sorry to the Christian community, full compensation has been promised, several of the ring leaders have already been arrested, and there's an acknowledgement that police completely failed to give the protection that Christians were legally entitled to. So there's some high level recognition that this has boiled up to a bit of a critical point now.

RB: Now you made the point obviously in your lecture at the university about the need for interfaith dialogue and the need to deal with a very profound misunderstandings of the Christian faith that exist certainly in Pakistan, and presumably elsewhere in the Muslim. How can you take that dialogue on now and how can you reach people, not just in universities, but in the villages?

ABC: Well again today at the same seminar here in Lahore as well as on one or two other occasions in the last few days, people at very high level, including the minister I mentioned, people like the governor locally, have said 'now we must take this into the villages'. This afternoon I also visited a very large Maddrasa in Lahore and addressed several hundred of their students and what I heard there encouraged me to think that even in what most of us would think is a deeply conservative environment, there is actually a willingness to take this dialogue to the villages. And one of the senior academics at the Madrassa spoke with incredible vehemence about the need for the dialogue to be localised, to be rooted. So I have a feeling that the events of the last couple of weeks have raised the profile a little, have reinforced for a lot of, what I can only call, average and decent Muslim teachers the imperative of attacking the bigotry that exists in some localities, and the need to marginalise and isolate extremists.

RB: And to advance this dialogue, is it necessary for Christians to be both self critical and to give up something, in terms of self critical I'm thinking about the comments you made about the Crusades in your lecture, where you said looking back now we would say that I think that that would be mistaken. Others would say that should there not now be a reciprocal statement from Muslims, accepting that spreading Islam by the tip of the sword and occupying Jerusalem might have been mistaken?

ABC: I sense that there is a willingness to take that self-critical agenda very much on board. I haven't always felt so confident as I have in these last few days, because what has surprised me rather in the conversations I've been involved in has been that willingness on both sides to put some hard questions to ourselves. Even the Christian community here that has suffered so much has been prepared to ask itself some difficult questions; have we related properly, have we taught our people the right kind of self-confidence in engaging in the public sphere, have we encouraged Christians to develop their skill as citizens? And Muslims likewise have said, well have we colluded with bigotry, have we in effect treated Christians as aliens, marginalised them, treated them as less than human. So both in the present, and looking back over history, I think there is the beginning of a sense of shared self-criticism. Now the real challenge of course, is how do you build up enough trust for that criticism to be heard and shared properly in a conversation, you can't just do it in slogans.

RB: But Christians surely don't have to give up their faith, their belief that theirs is a superior way to God, they remember the verse of Jesus saying 'No man cometh to the father but by me' Christians presumably still have to tell Muslims that's what they believe?

ABC: And that's what I said in my lecture at Islamabad the other day, that a Christian is not engaged in negotiating, or negotiating down the terms of faith, any more than a Muslim is in this dialogue. What's necessary is not bartering, doctoring, so to speak, of beliefs, because we believe with a depth of conviction and personal commitment, this is the way, the Muslim likewise approaches the dialogue saying I'm not bartering, I'm exploring with someone else to find out what they really believe, to find out what the points of difference are, in a spirit of mutual respect. I really, really deplore any idea that dialogue is about watering down or giving up, self-criticism is not the same as giving up the substance of faith.

RB: Finally Archbishop, is fundamentalism the enemy of both Christians and Muslims?

ABC: I find fundamentalism an increasingly unhelpful term in this context actually, because it's a particular Christian phenomenon, and when we apply to Islam, I think what we really mean is a particular set of primitivist movements in Islam, back to the Koran with no interpretation at all, cut out the centuries of intervening history. But in the sense that I suspect you mean, yes it is the enemy of both. And I've hear that said by some prominent Muslims as well as prominent Christians in the last few days, that the use of revelation as a weapon, the use of revelation as something to defend yourself against the otherness of another person, is the real enemy of any possibility that faith could help with the healing of the world.

RB: Archbishop, thank you very much indeed.

ABC: Thank you.

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