Pakistani archbishop concerned by political crisis

By  Anto Akkara, Catholic News Service
  • November 6, 2007
{mosimage}NEW DELHI - The head of the Pakistani Catholic bishops' conference expressed concern over the imposition of emergency rule that has led to widespread protests and a crackdown by the military regime of Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president.

"The church is very much concerned about what is happening. This situation is very unfortunate," Archbishop Lawrence Saldanha of Lahore, conference president, told Catholic News Service Nov. 5 in a telephone interview from Lahore.

"If the present situation lasts longer, it will lead to clamour, agitation and violence."

Musharraf, who captured power in a bloodless coup in 1999, declared emergency rule and suspended the constitution Nov. 3. He held several judges — including the country's chief justice — incommunicado for refusing to take an oath of allegiance to the military.

Many saw the step as a desperate act by the ruling general as the Supreme Court was rumoured to have decided to invalidate his early October re-election as president.

On Nov. 4 and 5, the government arrested and detained hundreds of protesting lawyers and political and civil rights activists for flouting the emergency rule, which bans all public protests.

Saldanha said the situation has been "made worse with the curbs on all avenues of communications" as the government has enacted emergency legislation banning independent news channels. He expressed concern over the manner in which the independence of the judiciary has been "virtually eliminated."

"This means new judges will not question the government," said Saldanha.

"We hope and pray for restoration of democracy and greater freedom at the earliest," he said.

Saldanha suggested that "the only way out of this mess is a free and fair election."

Later Nov. 5, the government said it would conduct national elections by mid-January. Musharraf, reacting to criticism from the United States, said he would quit the military.

Saldanha said the emergency rule jeopardized Nov. 10 celebrations to mark the centenary of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Lahore.

"We are not sure what kind of celebration we can have in the present situation," he said.

Meanwhile, the bishops' justice and peace commission said in a statement that its legal aid co-ordinator, Irfan Barkat, was among 56 civil rights activists arrested at the offices of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan Nov. 4. The 56 were charged with illegal assembly and interfering with public officers; they were taken into "preventative detention" and sent to jail.

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