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Archbishop - Sangla Hills apology 'a hopeful sign'

Sunday 27th November 2005

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has said that an apology offered to the Christian Community in Pakistan over the Sangla Hills incident is a hopeful sign for the country in the days ahead.

The apology came during a seminar for Christian and Muslim leaders in Lahore, Pakistan during the Archbishop's visit to the country and was offered by the country's Minister for Religious Affairs and Minorities, Mr Muhammad Ijaz ul Haq. Churches and houses belonging to Christians in Sangla Hills were destroyed in violence which followed accusations of blasphemy.

"I am immensely encouraged that the problems caused by the operation of the blasphemy laws are being recognised by very senior politicians. The apology is not only a reassurance to the Christian community in Pakistan but a clear sign that that proper and fruitful dialogue between the minority and the Muslim communities can be further developed."

"People recognise that these laws are working very badly, and the fact is that they're used against other Muslims and also other minorities as well as against Christians. What has struck me is the very great willingness of some very senior politicians to say that the working of these laws needs urgent review, not least because of the opportunities given for vexatious or malicious action, not only against Christians but by Muslims against each other."

At an earlier meeting Dr Williams spoke of the need for Christians and Muslims to overcome perceptions of injustice and feelings of mistrust in order for dialogue between them to make any lasting contribution to peace, justice and stability.

Speaking on Friday 25th November to Christian and Muslim leaders in the city, Dr Williams said that dialogue was all the more difficult when faith communities did not get beyond their initial feelings of suspicion. All involved, he said, needed to confront their own potential prejudices.

"Are we in fact, as Christians, in thrall to an uncritical support of a Western political, geopolitical agenda; are we as critical as we should be of some of those features of globalisation which keep other nations and other cultures, if not in slavery or the kind of oppressive relationship that has existed in the past, in a state of perpetual cultural disadvantage?"

"And the challenge for many Muslim communities is this; 'Can we, in a Muslim state, create the conditions that a Christian minority feels that it can, without reserve, trust its neighbours to look after its interests, to appreciate its difference?' Can those who live in Muslim states create the conditions in which a Christian can be fully a citizen?"

Dialogue, he said, was not a matter of trying to find compromise and he was not interested in the kind of religious exchange which saw faiths arguing about core beliefs:

"I'm a Christian; I believe that Jesus Christ died to take away my sins; that God is Father Son and Holy Spirit, that the Bible is the record of God's revelation. Because I believe that, I am a Christian: that is what being a Christian amounts to. And I do not think that it is particularly helpful to hope for some rather colourless compromise that will suit everybody."

"My Muslim colleagues, likewise, believe what they believe. They are Muslims because they believe that Muhammad was the seal of prophecy, because they believe that God has spoken authoritatively in the Qur'an; I do not expect to negotiate with them about their beliefs; I think it is something of an insult if we suppose the process of dialogue is meant to result in us being able to say 'I think I believe in some sort of God, and he's probably well disposed to us'.

Dr Williams said that perceptions of unfairness and injustice needed to be heard, understood and addressed by both communities.

On Saturday 26th November, Dr Williams visited a madrassa - a religious school - in the centre of Lahore. He welcomed the firm commitment to dialogue and understanding expressed by staff and students and told a mass gathering that working together was a major step in overcoming fear of each other.

"When we enter into interfaith dialogue it is so that we can see each other's face and see each other's heart. In Britain there are many places where Christians and Muslims work together for the good of the whole community. Here in Pakistan we have seen Christians and Muslims working together for the victims of the earthquake. When we work together like this we see in each other a face and a heart which is marked by compassion."

Dr Williams is visiting Pakistan at the invitation of the Church of Pakistan and its moderator, the Rt Revd Dr Alexander Malik. The Archbishop returns to the UK next week.

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