Ahead of tomorrow’s Vatican consistory, Pakistani Archbishop Joseph Coutts sees his upcoming elevation to the rank of cardinal as a sign of papal concern for a country coping with the heightened presence of extremist groups.
Archbishop Coutts of Karachi will become a cardinal at a June 28 consistory at the Vatican, alongside 13 other prelates representing the global Church and a variety of Vatican offices.
In an interview with CNA ahead of the ceremony, Coutts warned that his country is facing the threat of growing extremism from those pushing for a strict Islamic state.
The general atmosphere of religious freedom encapsulated in the nation’s founding has been eroded and now faces new threats from more radical strains of Islamic thought seeping into the country, he said.
“Many of our imams are now going to Saudi Arabia to study theology, and are coming back preaching against music and dancing, which is forbidden in Wahhabi Islam.”
Wahhabism, a severe school of Islam founded by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and centered in Saudi Arabia, was identified by the European Parliament in 2013 as the primary source of global terrorism.
Even the increase in suicide attacks in Pakistan can be traced back to this influence, Coutts said, noting that suicide is forbidden in Islam generally.
“But they justify it in the name of religion,” he said. “If you say my religion is the best religion and all the other religions are not good, then I justify myself in using force or violence, whatever it is, to get rid of the other.”
The majority of Muslims in Pakistan are moderate, Coutts said, explaining that the extremists only make up about 5 percent or less of the total population.
“There are Muslims who say, ‘We have no problem with democracy, it does not clash with Islamic thinking, and that's why we are a democracy’,” he said. But the extremists “don't accept democracy, they don't accept the international declaration of human rights, they say it's not Islamic.”
“We’ve always had these kinds of people on the fringes, but they weren't dominant,” he added. “Now they are becoming more assertive.”
Asked whether he believes Pakistan could become an Islamic state, Coutts said the possibility is real, but depends on several factors, including pressure from more radical Islamic nations such Saudi Arabia.
However, if the country, which is holding general elections July 26, begins to shift in that direction, “it means leading to a lot of clashes, because there are many who don't want it to be that way,” Coutts said.
“If these guys keep pushing their agenda, you'll reach a point of clash. Somebody will push back.”
The Catholic Church in Pakistan is a leading presence in works of charity and has long spoken out on behalf of minority rights, condemning persecution, specifically related to the country's anti-blasphemy law, which Coutts said is very easily manipulated.
Ultimately, though, he said the Church’s role in the nation is limited by its size. “What role can you have when you're two percent? There's a saying that when two elephants fight, the grass suffers.”
Coutts, who has served as Archbishop of Karachi since 2012, will be Pakistan’s only cardinal after tomorrow’s consistory.
Being made a cardinal will not have much practical effect on the Church’s role in the country, he said. But what the red hat does signify is Pope Francis' concern for Pakistan and the Christian presence in the nation.
“It's an honor for the country,” he said, noting that Pakistani Muslims, who generally have a positive view of Francis, feel the same way, and have voiced their appreciation and asked when a papal visit might take place.
“It shows the respect for the Holy Father that people have. They consider him a very good, moral leader, a religious leader who is promoting peace and understanding. They have high respect for him.”